Diagnosing Cervical Cancer
If a woman has a symptom or Pap test results that suggest precancerous cells or cancer of the cervix, and/or her HPV test is positive, her doctor will suggest other procedures to make a diagnosis.
These may include:
- The doctor uses a colposcope, which combines a bright light with a magnifying lens to make tissue easier to see, to examine the cervix. It is not inserted into the vagina. A colposcopy is usually done in the doctor's office or clinic.
- The doctor removes tissue to look for precancerous cells or cancer cells. Most women have their biopsy in the doctor's office with local anesthesia. A pathologist checks the tissue with a microscope.
- The doctor uses a sharp, hollow device to pinch off small samples of cervical tissue.
- The doctor uses an electric wire loop to extract a thin, round piece of tissue.
- The doctor uses a curette (a small, spoon-shaped instrument) to scrape a small sample of tissue from the cervical canal. Some doctors may use a thin, soft brush instead of a curette.
- The doctor removes a cone-shaped sample of tissue. A conization, or cone biopsy, lets the pathologist see if abnormal cells are in the tissue beneath the surface of the cervix. The doctor may do this test in the hospital under general anesthesia. Conization also may be used to remove a precancerous area.
Removing tissue from the cervix may cause some bleeding or other discharge. The area usually heals quickly. Women may also feel some pain similar to menstrual cramps. Medicine can relieve this discomfort.
If the biopsy shows that you have cancer, your doctor will do a thorough pelvic exam and may remove additional tissue to learn the extent (stage) of your disease. The stage tells whether the tumor has invaded nearby tissues, whether the cancer has spread and, if so, to what parts of the body.
These are the stages of cervical cancer:
- The cancer is found only in the top layer of cells in the tissue that lines the cervix. Stage 0 is also called carcinoma in situ.
- The cancer has invaded the cervix beneath the top layer of cells. It is found only in the cervix.
- The cancer extends beyond the cervix into nearby tissues. It extends to the upper part of the vagina. The cancer does not invade the lower third of the vagina or the pelvic wall (the lining of the part of the body between the hips).
- The cancer extends to the lower part of the vagina. It also may have spread to the pelvic wall and nearby ymph nodes.
- The cancer has spread to the bladder, rectum or other parts of the body.
- The cancer was treated, but has returned after a period of time during which it could not be detected. The cancer may show up again in the cervix or in other parts of the body.
To learn the extent of disease and suggest a course of treatment, the doctor may order some of the following tests:
- X-rays often can show whether cancer has spread to the lungs.
- An X-ray machine linked to a computer takes a series of detailed pictures of your organs. You may receive contrast material by injection in your arm or hand, by mouth or by enema. (Some people are allergic to contrast materials that contain iodine. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have allergies.) The contrast material makes abnormal areas easier to see. A tumor in the liver, lungs or elsewhere in the body can show up on the CT scan.
- A powerful magnet linked to a computer is used to make detailed pictures of your pelvis and abdomen. The doctor can view these pictures on a monitor and can print them on film. An MRI can show whether cancer has spread. Sometimes contrast material makes abnormal areas show up more clearly on the picture.
- An ultrasound device is held against the abdomen or inserted into the vagina. The device sends out sound waves that people cannot hear. The waves bounce off the cervix and nearby tissues, and a computer uses the echoes to create a picture. Tumors may produce echoes that are different from the echoes made by healthy tissues. The picture can show whether cancer has spread.