Cervical cancer is an uncommon type of cancer that develops in a woman's cervix. The cervix is the entrance to the womb from the vagina.
Cervical cancer often has no symptoms in its early stages. If you 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 suspects 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 national screening programme open to all women from the age of 25. During screening, a small sample of cells is taken from the cervix and checked under a microscope for abnormalities. This test is commonly referred to as a cervical smear test.
An abnormal smear test does not mean you definitely have cancer, as most abnormal results are caused by an infection or the presence of treatable precancerous cells rather than cancer itself.
It is recommended that women who are between the ages of 25 and 49 are screened every three years, and women between the ages of 50 and 64 are screened every five years. You should be sent a letter telling you when your screening appointment is due. Contact your GP if you think that you may be overdue for a screening appointment.
Read more about cervical cancer screening.
Why it happens
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus that's often spread during sex.
There are more than 100 different types of HPV, many of which are harmless. However, some types of HPV can disrupt the normal functioning of the cells of the cervix and can eventually trigger the onset of cancer.
Two strains of the HPV virus called HPV 16 and HPV 18 are known to be responsible for 70% of all cases of cervical cancer. These types of HPV infection have no symptoms, so many women will not realise they have the infection.
However, it is 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 cannot always prevent infection.
Since 2008, a HPV vaccine has been routinely offered to girls between the ages of 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 is 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.
Many women with cervical cancer will have complications. Complications can arise as a direct result of the cancer or as a side effect of treatments such as radiotherapy, surgery and chemotherapy.
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.
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% to 99%
- stage 2 – 60% to 90%
- stage 3 – 30% to 50%
- stage 4 – 20%
In the UK, just fewer than 1,000 women die from cervical cancer every year.