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Cervical Cancer

Overview :

In the United States, cervical cancer is the fifth most common cancer among women aged 35-54, and the third most common cancer of the female reproductive tract. In some developing countries, it is the most common type of cancer. It generally begins as an abnormality in the cells on the outside of the cervix. The cervix is the lower part or neck of the uterus (womb). It connects the body of the uterus to the vagina (birth canal).

Approximately 90% of cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. This type of cancer originates in the thin, flat, squamous cells on the surface of the ectocervix, the part of the cervix that is next to the vagina. (Squamous cells are the thin, flat cells of the surfaces of the skin and cervix and linings of various organs.) Another 10% of cervical cancers are of the adenocarcinoma type. This cancer originates in the mucus-producing cells of the inner or endocervix, near the body of the uterus. Occasionally, the cancer may have characteristics of both types and is called adenosquamous carcinoma or mixed carcinoma.

The initial changes that may occur in some cervical cells are not cancerous. However, these precancerous cells form a lesion called dysplasia or a squamous intraepithelial lesion (SIL), since it occurs within the epithelial or outer layer of cells. These abnormal cells can also be described as cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN). Moderate to severe dysplasia may be called carcinoma in situ or non-invasive cervical cancer.

Dysplasia is a common condition and the abnormal cells often disappear without treatment. However, these precancerous cells can become cancerous. This may take years, although it can happen in less than a year. Eventually, the abnormal cells start to grow uncontrollably into the deeper layers of the cervix, becoming an invasive cervical cancer.

Although cervical cancer used to be one of the most common causes of cancer death among American women, in the past 40 years there has been a 75% decrease in mortality. This is primarily due to routine screening with Pap tests (Pap smear), to identify precancerous and early-invasive stages of cervical cancer. With treatment, these conditions have a cure rate of nearly 100%.

Worldwide, there are more than 400,000 new cases of cervical cancer diagnosed each year. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimated 13,000 new cases of invasive cervical cancer diagnosed in the United States in 2002. More than one million women were diagnosed with a precancerous lesion or non-invasive cancer of the cervix in 2001.

Older women are at the highest risk for cervical cancer. Although girls under the age of 15 rarely develop this cancer, the risk factor begins to increase in the late teens. Rates for carcinoma in situ peak between the ages of 20 and 30. In the United States, the incidence of invasive cervical cancer increases rapidly with age for African-American women over the age of 25. The incidence rises more slowly for Caucasian women. However, women over age 65 account for more than 25% of all cases of invasive cervical cancer.

The incidence of cervical cancer is highest among poor women and among women in developing countries. In the United States, the death rates from cervical cancer are higher among Hispanic, Native American, and African-American women than among Caucasian women. These groups of women are much less likely to receive regular Pap tests. Therefore, their cervical cancers usually are diagnosed at a much later stage, after the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

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