Gynecologic Oncology Consult

When is hysterectomy appropriate for cervical dysplasia?


Cervical dysplasia is commonly diagnosed in women who have completed childbearing and don’t desire future fertility. While diagnostic and/or definitive therapy for cervical dysplasia can include hysterectomy, there are important considerations to make when offering this procedure to patients.

Dr. Emma C. Rossi, assistant professor in the division of gynecologic oncology at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Dr. Emma C. Rossi


Hysterectomy is commonly requested by patients upon learning of cervical dysplasia, particularly if they have chronic human papillomavirus (HPV) infection and have experienced years of frequent surveillance and interventions. They may see hysterectomy as an option to avoid this close surveillance and to be free of their dysplasia. There are two main concerns with offering hysterectomy as the primary surgical option for the management of dysplasia. Firstly, it may not be curative, and secondly, it may be an inadequate excisional procedure, particularly if the patient has occult invasive disease that has not been adequately diagnosed with a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) or a cone biopsy procedure.

It is important to counsel these patients that surgery is not a treatment for high-risk HPV infection, which is the underlying etiology of their disease. With that etiology, HPV infection is likely to persist after hysterectomy and they may develop vaginal or vulvar dysplasia. Therefore, the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology recommends that cytology and/or high-risk HPV surveillance continue following hysterectomy if that surgery was performed for dysplasia.1 Hysterectomy is not a means to avoid years of surveillance testing. Approximately 10% of women who have hysterectomy for cervical dysplasia develop vaginal dysplasia or cancer after surgery.2,3 This is similar to the likelihood of recurrent dysplasia after an alternative excisional procedure. In my experience, this diagnosis is often met with enormous frustration for the patient who thought that her hysterectomy would be the cure of her HPV-related disease. Thorough colposcopic evaluation of the vagina can be technically challenging after hysterectomy because of difficulty adequately visualizing lesions within the vaginal rugations, particularly within the puckered lateral vaginal fornices, the most common location for dysplasia.3 We will explore the diagnosis and treatment options for vaginal dysplasia further in a future column.

It is critical that, if patients are offered hysterectomy for treatment of cervical dysplasia, they are counseled that it may not be curative, that they will require long-term vaginal surveillance, and that they are at continued risk for vaginal and vulvar cancer.

An additional concern with performing hysterectomy for definitive management of cervical dysplasia is the concern that occult cancer may be missed preoperatively, and that the hysterectomy is inadequate surgical clearance of the disease. Approximately 2%-5% of patients with a high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion or equivocal Pap test have occult cervical cancer.4 A similar proportion of patients with cervical intraepithelial neoplasia stage III or adenocarcinoma in situ on colposcopy biopsy have invasive carcinoma on evaluation of an excisional specimen.5 The traditional surgical approach has dictated that a modified (type II) or extended (type III) radical hysterectomy be performed in the setting of FIGO stage IA2 or greater cervical cancer. Radical hysterectomies remove parametrial tissue, effectively achieving a wider margin around the primary lesion. This is important because cervical cancer primarily spreads via direct extension.

The appropriate radicality of surgery for microscopic lesions is debated. It has been proposed that for very small, low-risk lesions, a traditional extrafascial hysterectomy or trachelectomy, or possibly even a large conization, may be adequate.6 However, this is controversial, and National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines still advocate for radical procedures for these lesions.7 Certainly an excisional procedure (LEEP or cone) should first be performed to define the size and histologic features of the lesion, and ideally, evaluation and counseling with a gynecologic oncologist should be performed prior to offering patients with a stage IA2 or greater lesion an extrafascial hysterectomy. Additionally, a separate decision would need to be made regarding the need for lymphadenectomy, as this is typically recommended for patients with stage IA2 or greater lesions.

Patients should be counseled that, if extrafascial (simple) hysterectomy is chosen as the primary excisional procedure, they may require additional therapy (additional surgery, or radiation and possibly chemotherapy) if cancer is found in the specimen and the parametrial margin is inadequate. Additionally, and of more concern, if the lesion is a bulky lesion extending into the parametrium and not recognized preoperatively, a “cut-through” hysterectomy will be inadvertently performed (in which margins are grossly positive). These situations typically feature heavy blood loss with patients at increased risk for immediate surgical complications. Postoperatively, prognosis is substantially worse for patients who have had a cut-through hysterectomy, compared stage for stage with patients who primarily received a radical procedure with negative margins or primary chemotherapy and radiation.8 Otherwise said, their risk for death is higher if this error is made. Therefore a thorough examination is essential prior to performing hysterectomy for dysplasia. Any suspicion of bulky cancer should be considered a contraindication for proceeding.

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