Cervical Cancer | Symptoms & Diagnosis | MedStar Health
A female patient and her doctor stand together as they discuss the test results on the clipboard held by the doctor.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is a gynecologic cancer that develops in the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. This type of cancer begins in cells where precancerous changes occur, such as dysplasia (abnormal cells growing out of control). When detected by a Pap smear test, pre-cancers are treatable, which is why cervical cancer screening is one of the best ways to prevent this disease. As more and more women get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, the number of patients who develop this type of cancer in the United States should continue to decline. Our cervical cancer treatment options are available throughout the Washington D.C., Baltimore, Maryland, and Virginia areas.

Cervical Cancer

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Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix, the opening to the vagina, located at the base of the uterus.

Cervical cancer symptoms and risk factors

What are the signs of cervical cancer?

Many times, women with early stages of this cancer have no symptoms. However, cervical cancer symptoms may include the following:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods, after sex, or after menopause
  • Continuous vaginal discharge, which may be pale, watery, pink, brown, bloody, or foul-smelling
  • Periods that become heavier and last longer than usual
  • Any bleeding after menopause
  • Pain during or after sex

Other conditions may cause these symptoms, so it's always important to talk to your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis.

What causes cervical cancer?

Most of these cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a virus spread through skin-to-skin contact, commonly during unprotected sex. There are many different types of HPV. Some strains lead to cervical cancer, while others do not cause any problems at all.

Other risk factors that increase your chances of getting this disease include:

  • Becoming sexually active at a young age
  • Having multiple sexual partners
  • Having sexual partners who have multiple partners or participate in high-risk sexual activities
  • Smoking
  • Women whose mothers took the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) during pregnancy in the early 1960s to prevent miscarriage
  • Having a weakened immune system

Screening and prevention

Cervical cancer screening tests can detect early signs of cancer when it is easily treatable.

A Pap test (or Pap smear) is a lifesaving screening that can detect precancerous changes, which can be treated before they become cervical cancer. Pap smears work well in spotting such changes, but they must be done regularly, even if you've received the HPV vaccine. Women may also choose to get screened with an HPV test, which looks for the virus that may cause cervical cancer. The HPV test can be conducted alone or simultaneously with a Pap test. Both tests involve using a soft swab to collect cells from the cervix.

The American Cancer Society's current guidelines recommend that women begin cervical cancer screening at 25 and continue through age 65. Guidelines suggest that women can choose to have:

  • An HPV test every 5 years, OR
  • A Pap test and HPV co-test every 5 years, OR
  • A Pap test every 3 years

You may benefit from more frequent screenings if you:

  • Have a history of cervical cancer
  • Are HIV positive

Women over 65 who have had a series of normal screening results can stop screening.

Find a MedStar Health Gynecologist Nearby

How can I protect myself against cervical cancer?

In addition to getting screened regularly, you can also protect yourself against cervical cancer by:

  • Getting the HPV vaccine: Most cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Two vaccines are now available (Gardasil® and Cervarix®) to prevent infection against the most frequent HPV subtypes. The vaccine is administered as three injections over six months to girls and young women ages 9 to 26. Studies have shown that the HPV vaccine appears to prevent early-stage cervical cancer and precancerous lesions.
  • Practicing safe sex: Using condoms also reduces your risk of contracting HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, the HPV infection can also cause genital warts. These may be barely visible or several inches wide. If a woman sees warts on her partner's genitals, she should avoid intercourse with that person. To further reduce the risk of cervical cancer, women should limit their number of sexual partners and avoid partners who participate in high-risk sexual activities.

Cervical cancer diagnosis

How is cervical cancer diagnosed?

If you have signs of cervical cancer or receive an abnormal Pap or HPV test result, your doctor may recommend additional tests for further evaluation. These may include:

  • Colposcopy: This involves using a lighted magnifying lens to examine the cervix for anything unusual. If something abnormal is found, a tissue sample may be removed (biopsy).
  • Loop electrosurgical excision (LEEP) procedure: Your doctor may use a small, heated, looped wire to remove abnormal cells from the cervix for examination.
  • Cone biopsy (conization): This type of biopsy involves removing a slightly larger sample of cervical tissue.
  • Imaging: Your doctor may order various imaging studies, such as a computed tomography (CT), PET, or MRI scan, to determine the extent of disease. This will help to inform your best treatment options.



Staging classifies how much cancer is in the body and whether it has spread.

Cervical cancer treatment will vary based on how much your cancer has progressed. Cervical cancer stages include:

  • Stage O (Carcinoma in situ): The earliest stage is known as precancer. Also called severe dysplasia, this stage involves abnormal cells that have not yet become cancerous but could become malignant over time.
  • Stage I: An early cervical cancer, this stage of disease is contained to the cervix.
  • Stage II: These cancers may have spread beyond the cervix to the upper two-thirds of the vagina (IIA). Cancers that have grown into the tissues around the uterus (IIB) may be considered locally advanced cervical cancer.
  • Stage III: At this stage, cancer has begun to invade surrounding tissues in the lower third of the vagina, pelvic wall, or lymph nodes and is categorized as more advanced cervical cancer.
  • Stage IV: This is considered metastatic cancer, as malignant cells have spread to other parts of the body outside of the pelvis.

Cervical cancer treatments

How is this type of cancer treated?

Our multidisciplinary team of experts offers the latest advances in cervical cancer treatment, personalized to each patient. With several locations throughout the region, our gynecologic oncologists, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, and other cancer specialists work together to deliver comprehensive care that leads to the best possible outcomes.

Cervical cancer treatment is unique to each patient, individualized based on the location, size, and stage of the disease. When surgery is recommended, patients can expect access to the latest, least invasive surgical approaches, including laparoscopic and robotic-assisted surgery, when appropriate. In addition, we offer the latest advances in radiation and chemotherapy, including access to clinical trials that may be difficult to find elsewhere.

Your cancer doctors will thoroughly explain all of your treatment options, including the pros and cons and what to expect so you can confidently choose your next steps. Throughout your entire journey with cancer, you’ll also be supported by nurses, advanced clinicians, rehabilitation experts, and other medical specialists who are here to help with whatever needs arise.

Learn More About Cervical Cancer Treatment

Looking for expert cancer care

With multiple locations throughout the region, patients have access to many of the nation’s renowned cancer specialists offering high-quality care, second opinions, and a chance for better outcomes close to where they live and work. Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of the nation’s comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), serves as the research engine allowing patients access to clinical trials that often lead to breakthroughs in cancer care.

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2nd Floor
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Bel Air, MD 21015

MedStar Health: Women's Health at Dundalk

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Ste. 16
Baltimore, MD 21222


MedStar Health: Women's Health at Gaithersburg

501 North Frederick Ave.
Ste. 202
Gaithersburg, MD 20877

MedStar Health: Women's Health at Lafayette Centre

1133 21st St., NW
Building 2
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Washington, D.C. 20036

MedStar Health: Women's Health at Leonardtown

41680 Miss Bessie Dr.
Ste. 102
Leonardtown, MD 20650

MedStar Health: Women's Health at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital

3800 Reservoir Road, NW
3rd Floor Main
Washington, DC 20007

MedStar Health: Women's Health at MedStar Harbor Hospital

3001 S. Hanover St.
Outpatient Center
Ground Floor
Baltimore, MD 21225

MedStar Health: Women's Health at Pasadena

8026 Ritchie Highway
Ste. A
Pasadena, MD 21122

MedStar Health: Women's Health at Silver Spring

2415 Musgrove Rd.
Ste. 209
Silver Spring , MD 20904


MedStar Health: Women's Health at Waldorf

3500 Old Washington Rd.
Ste. 302
Waldorf, MD 20602