Introduction 

Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that develops in a woman's cervix (the entrance to the womb from the vagina).

Cancer of the cervix often has no symptoms in its early stages. If you do have symptoms, the most common is unusual vaginal bleeding, which can occur after sex, in between periods or after the menopause.

Abnormal bleeding doesn't mean that you definitely have cervical cancer, but it should be investigated by your GP as soon as possible. If your GP thinks you might have cervical cancer, you should be referred to see a specialist within two weeks.

Read more about the symptoms of cervical cancer and diagnosing cervical cancer.

Screening for cervical cancer

Over the course of many years, the cells lining the surface of the cervix undergo a series of changes. In rare cases, these precancerous cells can become cancerous. However, cell changes in the cervix can be detected at a very early stage and treatment can reduce the risk of cervical cancer developing.

The NHS offers a cervical screening programme to all women from the age of 25. During cervical screening (previously known as a "smear test"), a small sample of cells is taken from the cervix and checked under a microscope for abnormalities.

An abnormal cervical screening test doesn't mean you definitely have cancer. Most abnormal results are caused by an infection or the presence of treatable precancerous cells, rather than cancer itself.

Women aged 25 to 49 years of age are offered screening every three years, and women aged 50 to 64 are offered screening every five years. For women who are 65 or older, only those who haven't been screened since they were 50, or those who have had recent abnormal tests, are offered screening.

You should be sent a letter confirming when your screening appointment is due. Contact your GP if you think you may be overdue for a screening appointment.

Read more about cervical screening.

What causes cervical cancer?

Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus that can be passed on through any type of sexual contact with a man or a woman.

There are more than 100 different types of HPV, many of which are harmless. However, some types of HPV can cause abnormal changes to the cells of the cervix, which can eventually lead to cervical cancer.

Two strains of the HPV virus (HPV 16 and HPV 18) are known to be responsible for 70% of all cases of cervical cancer. These types of HPV infection don't have any symptoms, so many women won't realise they have the infection.

However, it's important to be aware that these infections are relatively common and most women who have them don't develop cervical cancer.

Using condoms during sex offers some protection against HPV, but it can't always prevent infection, because the virus is also spread through skin-to-skin contact of the wider genital area.

Since 2008, a HPV vaccine has been routinely offered to girls aged 12 and 13.

Read more about the causes of cervical cancer and preventing cervical cancer.

Treating cervical cancer

If cervical cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, it's usually possible to treat it using surgery. In some cases, it's possible to leave the womb in place, but it may need to be removed. The surgical procedure used to remove the womb is called a hysterectomy.

Radiotherapy is an alternative to surgery for some women with early stage cervical cancer. In some cases, it's used alongside surgery.

More advanced cases of cervical cancer are usually treated using a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Some of the treatments used can have significant and long-lasting side effects, including early menopause and infertility.

Read more about treating cervical cancer.

Complications

Many women with cervical cancer will have complications. These can arise as a direct result of the cancer or as a side effect of treatments such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery.

Complications associated with cervical cancer can range from the relatively minor, such as minor bleeding from the vagina or having to urinate frequently, to life-threatening, such as severe bleeding or kidney failure.

Read more about the complications of cervical cancer.

Outlook

The stage at which cervical cancer is diagnosed is an important factor in determining a woman's outlook. The staging, given as a number from one to four, indicates how far the cancer has spread.

The chances of living for at least five years after being diagnosed with cervical cancer are:

  • stage 1  80-99%
  • stage 2  60-90%
  • stage 3  30-50%
  • stage 4  20%

Read more about the staging of cervical cancer.

In the UK, just under 1,000 women die from cervical cancer every year.

Who's affected by cervical cancer?

Following the success of the NHS Cervical Screening Programme and the early detection of cell changes, the number of cervical cancer cases in the UK has reduced. Around 3,000 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year.

It's possible for women of all ages to develop cervical cancer, but the condition mainly affects sexually active women between 30-45 years of age. Cervical cancer is very rare in women under 25.

Page last reviewed: 30/04/2015

Next review due: 30/04/2017