Understand cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is most often diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44. It is rare for women younger than 20 to develop this type of cancer.

The information on this page may help you gain better understanding of your cervical cancer diagnosis. Being prepared may help when making important decisions with your doctor.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical Cancer Stages

The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus (the hollow, pear-shaped organ where a fetus grows when a woman is pregnant). The cervix connects the lower part of the uterus to the vagina.

Cervical cancer usually develops slowly over time. Before cancer appears in the cervix, the cells of the cervix go through changes known as dysplasia, in which abnormal cells begin to appear in the cervical tissue (pre-cancerous cells). Over time, the abnormal cells may become cancer cells and start to grow and spread more deeply into the cervix and to surrounding areas. It can also spread to other parts of the body (metastasize).

There are usually no signs or symptoms of early cervical cancer, but it can be detected early with regular check-ups. Check-ups should include tests such as the Pap test and/or the HPV test. The Pap test checks for pre-cancerous changes in the cervix. The HPV test looks for high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV) infections, which are more likely to cause pre-cancers and cervical cancer. Regular screening can find dysplasia (pre-cancer) or early cervical cancer when it is easier to treat.

Stages of cervical cancer

From the National Cancer Institute (NCI)

The information below is based on information originally published by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the US government’s main agency for cancer research.

Cervical cancer is described in 4 stages ranging from I (1) to IV (4), with stage IV (4) being the most severe. Find more information below on each of the stages of cervical cancer. Being knowledgeable of this information may help you have a more productive conversation with your doctor.

Stage I (1) cervical cancer

In stage I (1), cancer has formed and is found in the cervix only.

Stage I is divided into stages IA and IB, based on the size of the tumor and the deepest point of tumor invasion.

In stage IA

  • Stage IA is divided into stages IA1 and IA2, based on the deepest point of tumor invasion.
    • In stage IA1, a very small amount of cancer that can only be seen with a microscope is found in the tissues of the cervix. The deepest point of tumor invasion is 3 millimeters or less.
    • In stage IA2, a very small amount of cancer that can only be seen with a microscope is found in the tissues of the cervix. The deepest point of tumor invasion is more than 3 millimeters but not more than 5 millimeters.

In stage IB

  • Stage IB is divided into stages IB1, IB2, and IB3, based on the size of the tumor and the deepest point of tumor invasion.
    • In stage IB1, the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller and the deepest point of tumor invasion is more than 5 millimeters.
    • In stage IB2, the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 4 centimeters.
    • In stage IB3, the tumor is larger than 4 centimeters.

Stage II (2) cervical cancer

In stage II, cancer has spread to the upper two-thirds of the vagina or to the tissue around the uterus, but hasn’t spread to the pelvic wall or lower part of the vagina.

Stage II is divided into stages IIA and IIB, based on how far the cancer has spread.

In stage IIA

  • Cancer has spread from the cervix to the upper two-thirds of the vagina but has not spread to the tissue around the uterus. Stage IIA is divided into stages IIA1 and IIA2, based on the size of the tumor.
    • In stage IIA1, the tumor is 4 centimeters or smaller.
    • In stage IIA2, the tumor is larger than 4 centimeters.

In stage IIB

  • Cancer has spread from the cervix to the tissue around the uterus.

Stage III (3) cervical cancer

In stage III, cancer has spread to the lower third of the vagina and/or to the pelvic wall, and/or has caused kidney problems, and/or involves lymph nodes.

Stage III is divided into stages IIIA, IIIB, and IIIC, based on how far the cancer has spread.

In stage IIIA

  • Cancer has spread to the lower third of the vagina but has not spread to the pelvic wall.

In stage IIIB

  • Cancer has spread to the pelvic wall, and/or the tumor has become large enough to block one or both ureters or has caused one or both kidneys to get bigger or stop working.

In stage IIIC

  • Stage IIIC is divided into stages IIIC1 and IIIC2, based on the spread of cancer to the lymph nodes.
    • In stage IIIC1, cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the pelvis.
    • In stage IIIC2, cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the abdomen near the aorta.

Stage IV (4) cervical cancer

In stage IV, cancer has spread beyond the pelvis, or has spread to the bladder or rectum, or has spread to other parts of the body.

Stage IV is divided into stages IVA and IVB, based on where the cancer has spread.

In stage IVA

  • Cancer has spread to nearby organs, such as the bladder or rectum.

In stage IVB

  • Cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the liver, lungs, bones, or distant lymph nodes.

Learn about a possible treatment option for certain patients with advanced cervical cancer.