Conditions & Treatments

Cervical Cancer

If abnormal cells on the surface of the cervix spread deeper into the cervix, or to other tissues or organs, the disease is then called cervical cancer, or invasive cervical cancer.

Cervical Cancer

Illustration of the anatomy of the female pelvic area
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What is cancer?

Cancer is when cells in the body change and grow out of control. To help you understand what happens when you have cancer, let's look at how your body works normally. Your body is made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Normal cells grow when your body needs them, and die when your body does not need them any longer.

Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow even though your body doesn't need them. In most cancers, the abnormal cells grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. If cancer cells are in the body long enough, they can grow into (invade) nearby areas. They can even spread to other parts of the body (metastasis).

What is cervical cancer?

Cancer that starts in cells of the cervix is called cervical cancer.

Understanding the cervix

The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the womb (uterus). It's located between the bladder and the rectum. It forms a canal that opens into the birth canal (vagina), which leads to the outside of the body.

Looking for precancer

Precancerous cells on the cervix are the first sign that cervical cancer may develop. These cells can be seen on a Pap test. They are cells that look abnormal, but are not yet cancer. The appearance of these cells may be the first sign of cancer that will grow years later. Treating these precancer cells can prevent cancer from growing. Precancer cells of the cervix often don’t cause pain or other symptoms. This is why regular cervical cancer screening is so important.

Types of precancer

Squamous intraepithelial lesions (SIL) is a term that refers to abnormal changes in the cells on the surface of the cervix. Changes in these cells can be divided into 2 categories:

  • Low-grade SIL. This refers to early changes in the size, shape, and number of cells that form the surface of the cervix. They may go away on their own or, with time, may grow larger or become more abnormal, forming a high-grade lesion.These changes may also be called mild dysplasia or cervical intraepithelial neoplasia 1 (CIN 1).

  • High-grade SIL. This means there are a large number of precancer cells, and, like low-grade SIL, these changes involve only cells on the surface of the cervix. The cells often do not become cancerous for many months, perhaps years, but without treatment, they will become cancer. High-grade lesions may also be called moderate or severe dysplasia, CIN 2 or 3, or carcinoma in situ.

If abnormal cells on the surface of the cervix are not found and treated, over time they can spread deeper into the cervix, or to other tissues or organs. This is then called cervical cancer, or invasive cervical cancer. Cervical cancer occurs most often in women younger than the age of 50. Most cervical cancer is squamous cell carcinoma or adenocarcinoma.

The death rates for cervical cancer have declined sharply as Pap screenings have become more prevalent. Today, most cervical cancer is found in women who have not had regular screening.

Preventing cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is one of the few types of cancer that doctors know how to prevent. There are two key ways to prevent cervical cancer:

  • Get regular Pap tests. These are done to find and treat any precancerous cells as soon as possible.

  • Prevent precancer cells. You can do this by avoiding contact with the human papilloma virus (HPV), getting an HPV vaccine, and not smoking.

Treatment Programs


Massachusetts General Hospital understands that a variety of factors influence patients' health care decisions. That's just one reason why we're dedicated to ensuring patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Because a single option might not serve all patients, we offer a wide range of coordinated treatments and related services across the hospital. Patients should consult with their primary care doctor or other qualified health care provider for medical advice and diagnosis information.

Select a treatment program for more information:



Cancer Center

  • Cervical Cancer
    The Center for Gynecologic Oncology provides compassionate care for patients with cervical cancer.
Imaging

  • Cancer Imaging and Intervention
    The Cancer Imaging and Intervention Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging combines leading-edge technology and the expertise of specialty-trained radiologists to provide comprehensive cancer detection and monitoring, plus image-guided treatments for specific types of cancer.
Department of Radiation Oncology

  • Gynecologic Program
    The Gynecologic Program in the Department of Radiation Oncology administers innovative radiation treatments to women with malignancies of the reproductive tract.
Obstetrics and Gynecology

  • Midlife Women's Health Center
    The Massachusetts General Hospital Midlife Women’s Health Center brings together experts from more than 15 specialties to improve, promote and advance health care for women at menopause and beyond through research, collaboration and education.
  • Minimally Invasive Gynecologic Surgery Center
    The Minimally Invasive Gynecologic Surgery (MIGS) Center at Massachusetts General Hospital delivers innovative, multidisciplinary care for a full range of gynecologic conditions including endometriosis, fibroids, abnormal uterine bleeding, ovarian cysts/masses, pelvic pain, urinary incontinence and gynecologic cancers.
  • Benign Gynecology Program
    The Benign Gynecology Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology delivers compassionate, expert care for the full range of gynecologic issues.

The following related clinical trials and research studies are currently seeking participants at Massachusetts General Hospital. Search for clinical trials and studies in another area of interest.

Cervical Cancer Screening

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recently released new guidelines for cervical cancer screening. Dr. Marcela Del Carmen from the Obstetrics and Gynecology Service and Dr. Elizabeth Roth from the Women’s Health Associates at Mass General help put this in context.

Marcela Del Carmen, MD, talks about your risk of developing cervical cancer, even as you age

Marcela Del Carmen, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center says that the risk for cervical cancer goes up, not down, as you age. Learn about your risk for cervical cancer, and the new guidelines that caution women to continue to get PAP smears into their 60s.

Innovative care at the Cancer Center

Learn more about the latest treatment options for this condition at the Cancer Center