Stage 3 cervical cancer means cancer has spread to areas of the pelvis beyond the cervix. Symptoms include unusual vaginal bleeding and pelvic pain.

Cervical cancer starts in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Over 90% of cervical cancer cases are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Like many other cancers, cervical cancer is divided into four stages. These stages indicate how far the cancer has spread.

This article reviews the characteristics of stage 3 cervical cancer, symptoms to be aware of, and what to expect regarding treatment and outlook.

Stage 3 cervical cancer has spread to areas of the pelvis beyond the cervix. This includes the lower part of the vagina, the pelvic walls, or nearby lymph nodes.

It has not yet spread to more distant parts of the body like the bones or lungs.

Stage 3 cervical cancer is further divided into stage 3A, stage 3B, and stage 3C:

  • Stage 3A has spread into the lower part of the vagina, but hasn’t yet spread into the pelvic wall or nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage 3B has spread into the pelvic wall and also may be causing kidney problems by blocking one or both tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder (ureters). It hasn’t yet spread into nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage 3C is subdivided into stage 3C1 and 3C2:
    • Stage 3C1 has spread to nearby lymph nodes in the pelvis.
    • Stage 3C2 has spread to lymph nodes in the abdomen close to the aorta.

How long does it take to develop stage 3 cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer grows slowly. The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that it can take 15 to 20 years for most people to initially develop cervical cancer. As such, it may be many years before cancer reaches stage 3.

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Many times, cervical cancer doesn’t have symptoms until it has spread. Some potential symptoms to look out for include:

Additional signs of more advanced cervical cancer, such as stage 3 cervical cancer, can be:

The symptoms above can also be caused by conditions other than cervical cancer. If you develop symptoms, the only way to be sure about what’s causing them is to see your doctor.

Cervical cancer can sometimes be cured when it’s found in earlier stages. This is more difficult to do when it has reached more advanced stages, such as stage 3. However, it can still be managed with the goal of achieving remission.

Stage 3 cervical cancer is treated using a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which is called chemoradiation. Giving chemotherapy at the same time improves the effectiveness of radiation therapy.

Chemotherapy drugs that may be used include cisplatin or carboplatin. Radiation therapy is often a combination of external beam and internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy).

Surgery may also be done to remove lymph nodes in the pelvis. This is typically followed by radiation therapy, which may or may not include chemotherapy.

The outlook for stage 3 cervical cancer depends on several factors, such as:

  • the type of cervical cancer
  • where in the pelvis the cancer has spread
  • the size of the cancer
  • the molecular and genetic characteristics of the cancer
  • how the cancer responds to treatment
  • whether cancer is newly diagnosed or is a recurrence
  • age and overall health

Doctors often use 5-year survival rates in discussing cancer outlook. This is the percentage of people with a specific type and stage of cancer who are alive 5 years after their diagnosis.

According to the National Cancer Institute’s SEER database, the 5-year survival rate for cervical cancer that has spread regionally, which encompasses stage 3 cervical cancer, is 59.4%.

A 2020 study noted higher staging of stage 3 cervical cancers wasn’t always associated with a worse outlook. For example, in this study, people with stage 3A cancers had lower 5-year survival rates (40.7%) than those with stage 3C1 cancers (60.8%).

A note on survival rates

When considering 5-year survival rates, remember that they don’t consider specific characteristics of your cancer or individual factors like your age or overall health.

Further, because these statistics are collected over a longer period, they often don’t account for recent advances in cervical cancer detection and treatment.

To better understand your outlook, it’s important to have an open discussion with your cancer care team.

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Stage 3 cervical cancer has spread from the cervix into the lower part of the vagina, the walls of the pelvis, or nearby lymph nodes. It’s further divided into three different substages, called 3A, 3B, and 3C.

The outlook for cervical cancer is best when it’s found and treated early. Because of this, be sure to visit your doctor if you develop symptoms like atypical vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain, or periods that are longer or heavier than usual.