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Cancer starts when cells in the body begin to grow out of control. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer, and can spread to other areas of the body. To learn more about how cancers start and spread, see What Is Cancer?

The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb). The uterus has 2 parts. The upper part, called the body of the uterus, is where a fetus grows. The cervix, in the lower part, connects the body of the uterus to the vagina, or birth canal.

Cancer of the cervix (also called cervical cancer) begins in the cells lining the cervix. These cells do not suddenly change into cancer. Instead, the normal cells of the cervix first slowly change into pre-cancer cells that can then turn into cancer. These changes may be called dysplasia. The change can take many years, but sometimes happen faster. These changes can be found by the Pap test and treated to prevent cancer (see "Can cancer of the cervix be prevented?").

There are 2 main types of cancer of the cervix. About 8 to 9 out of 10 are squamous cell carcinomas. Under the microscope, this type of cancer is made up of cells that are like squamous cells that cover the surface of the cervix.

Most of the rest are adenocarcinomas. These cancers start in the gland cells that make mucus. Less often, the cancer has features of both types and is called adenosquamous or mixed carcinoma.

Other types of cancer also can develop in the cervix. These other types (such as melanoma, sarcoma, and lymphoma) happen most often in other parts of the body. If you have cervical cancer, ask your doctor to explain exactly what type of cancer you have.

This information is only about the more common types of cervical cancer, not the rare ones.

Last Medical Review: 10/15/2014
Last Revised: 01/29/2016