Finding cervical cancer often starts with an abnormal HPV (human papillomavirus) or Pap test result. This will lead to further tests which can diagnose cervical cancer or pre-cancer. The Pap test and HPV test are screening tests, not diagnostic tests. They cannot tell for certain if you have cervical cancer. An abnormal Pap test or HPV test result may mean more testing is needed to see if a cancer or a pre-cancer is present.
Cervical cancer may also be suspected if you have symptoms like abnormal vaginal bleeding or pain during sex. Your primary doctor or gynecologist often can do the tests needed to diagnose pre-cancers and cancers and may also be able to treat a pre-cancer.
If there is a diagnosis of invasive cancer, your doctor should refer you to a gynecologic oncologist, a doctor who specializes in cancers of women's reproductive systems.
Your current screening test results along with your past test results, determine your risk of developing cervical cancer. Your doctor will use them to figure out your next test or treatment. It could be a follow-up screening test in a year, a colposcopy, or one of the other procedures discussed below to treat any pre-cancers that might be found.
Because there are many different follow-up or treatment options depending on your specific risk of developing cervical cancer, it is best to talk to your healthcare provider about your screening results in more detail, to fully understand your risk of cervical cancer and what follow-up plan is best for you.
First, the doctor will ask you about your personal and family medical history. This includes information related to risk factors and symptoms of cervical cancer. A complete physical exam will help evaluate your general state of health. You will have a pelvic exam and maybe a Pap test if one has not already been done. In addition, your lymph nodes will be felt to see if the cancer has spread (metastasis).
If you have certain symptoms that could mean cancer, if your Pap test result shows abnormal cells, or if your HPV test is positive, you will most likely need to have a procedure called a colposcopy. You will lie on the exam table as you do with a pelvic exam. The doctor will put a speculum in the vagina to help keep it open while examining the cervix with a colposcope. The colposcope is an instrument that stays outside the body and has magnifying lenses. It lets the doctor clearly see the surface of the cervix up close. Colposcopy itself is usually no more uncomfortable than any other speculum exam. It can be done safely even if you are pregnant. Like the Pap test, it is better not to do it during your menstrual period.
The doctor will put a weak solution of acetic acid (similar to vinegar) on your cervix to make any abnormal areas easier to see. If an abnormal area is seen, a small piece of tissue will be removed (biopsy) and sent to a lab to be looked at carefully. A biopsy is the best way to tell for certain if an abnormal area is a pre-cancer, a true cancer, or neither.
Several types of biopsies can be used to diagnose cervical pre-cancers and cancers. If the biopsy can completely remove all of the abnormal tissue, it might be the only treatment needed.
For this type of biopsy, first the cervix is examined with a colposcope to find the abnormal areas. Using a biopsy forceps, a small (about 1/8-inch) section of the abnormal area on the surface of the cervix is removed. The biopsy procedure may cause mild cramping, brief pain, and some slight bleeding afterward.
If colposcopy does not show any abnormal areas or if the transformation zone (the area at risk for HPV infection and pre-cancer) cannot be seen with the colposcope, another method must be used to check that area for cancer.
A narrow instrument (either a curette or a brush) is inserted into the endocervical canal (the part of the cervix closest to the uterus). The curette or brush is used to scrape the inside of the canal to remove some of the tissue, which is then sent to the lab to be checked. After this procedure, patients may feel a cramping pain, and they may also have some light bleeding.
In this procedure, also known as conization, the doctor removes a cone-shaped piece of tissue from the cervix. The base of the cone is formed by the exocervix (outer part of the cervix), and the point or apex of the cone is from the endocervical canal. The tissue removed in the cone includes the transformation zone (the border between the exocervix and endocervix, where cervical pre-cancers and cancers are most likely to start). A cone biopsy can also be used as a treatment to completely remove many pre-cancers and some very early cancers.
The methods commonly used for cone biopsies are the loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), also called the large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ), and the cold knife cone biopsy.
Possible complications of cone biopsies include bleeding, infection and narrowing of the cervix.
Having had any type of cone biopsy will not prevent most women from getting pregnant, but if a large amount of tissue has been removed, women may have a higher risk of giving birth prematurely.
If a biopsy shows that cancer is present, your doctor may order certain tests to see if and how far the cancer has spread. Many of the tests described below are not necessary for every patient. Decisions about using these tests are based on the results of the physical exam and biopsy.
These are most often done in women who have large tumors. They are not necessary if the cancer is caught early.
In a cystoscopy, a slender tube with a lens and a light is placed into the bladder through the urethra. This lets the doctor check your bladder and urethra to see if cancer is growing into these areas. Biopsy samples can be removed during cystoscopy for testing in the lab. Cystoscopy can be done under a local anesthetic, but some patients may need general anesthesia. Your doctor will let you know what to expect before and after the procedure.
Proctoscopy is a visual inspection of the rectum through a lighted tube to look for spread of cervical cancer into your rectum.
Your doctor may also do a pelvic exam while you are under anesthesia to find out if the cancer has spread beyond the cervix.
If your doctor finds that you have cervical cancer, certain imaging studies may be done to look inside the body. These tests can show if and where the cancer has spread, which will help you and your doctor decide on a treatment plan.
Your chest may be x-rayed to see if cancer has spread to your lungs.
CT scans are usually done if the tumor is larger or if there is concern about cancer spread. For more information, see CT Scan for Cancer.
MRI scans look at the soft tissue parts of the body sometimes better than other imaging tests, like a CT scan. Your doctor will decide which imaging test is best to use in your situation.
For more information, see MRI for Cancer.
For a PET scan, a slightly radioactive form of sugar (known as FDG) is injected into the blood and collects mainly in cancer cells.
PET/CT scan: Often a PET scan is combined with a CT scan using a special machine that can do both at the same time. This lets the doctor compare areas of higher radioactivity on the PET scan with a more detailed picture on the CT scan. This is the type of PET scan most often used in patients with cervical cancer.
This test can help see if the cancer has spread to lymph nodes. PET scans can also be useful if your doctor thinks the cancer has spread but doesn’t know where.
Intravenous urography (also known as intravenous pyelogram, or IVP) is an x-ray of the urinary system taken after a special dye is injected into a vein. This test can find abnormal areas in the urinary tract, caused by the spread of cervical cancer. The most common finding is that the cancer has blocked the ureters (tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder). IVP is rarely used for patients with cervical cancer because CT and MRI are also good at finding abnormal areas in the urinary tract, as well as others not seen with an IVP.
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National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Cervical Cancer. Version 4.2019. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/cervical.pdf on October 31, 2019.
Last Revised: July 30, 2020