Cervical cancer 

Introduction 

Cervical cancer

Andy Nordin, a gynaecological oncologist, explains the symptoms of cervical cancer, who’s most at risk and the treatment options.

Media last reviewed: 21/02/2013

Next review due: 21/02/2015

Who is affected?

Because of the success of the NHS screening programme, cervical cancer is now an uncommon type of cancer in the UK.

It's possible for women of all ages to develop cervical cancer, although the condition mainly affects sexually active women between the ages of 30 and 45. The condition is very rare in women under 25.

Around 3,000 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed each year in the UK.

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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.

Complications

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.

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% 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.

Page last reviewed: 17/06/2013

Next review due: 17/06/2015

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Comments

The 10 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Aero Smurfette said on 05 June 2014

My screening leaflet does not say that I should have the test only that it is offered to me. Not mentioned in the facts of this article is the failure rate of 1 in 20 tests which need to be done again. I am also concerned to read the test can show minor abnormalities in cervical cells which would have cleared up on their own. This means I might be treated unnecessarily. How often does this happen? I am worried as I want to have a baby in the future and the treatment Large loop excision is linked to pre-term delivery and low birth weight. Is there anywhere else that provides all the facts of screening and the balance in choices women need to consider.

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theacorn said on 10 April 2014

Hi Can anyone help me I have had the same partner for over 30 years and neither of us have been with anyone else since then can I still get this or would I we need to of been with other partners

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naomig1990 said on 31 March 2014

My friend has been diagnosed with this today. She is 24! Has had all the symptoms for months and has asked for smear tests to be done but has been told shes too young. An m.r.i will determine what stage she is at in a few days. Iam shocked and furious to say the least. She was told she may have pelvic Inflammatory disease, poly cystic ovaries or even an s.t.i n was put on anti biotics for 6months. What a discrase. Are english girls less important?? Because every other country including scotland n wales have the screening age at 20 or lower at 18 in Australia. 6 girls in my college class have all recently had their first smears nand had to have pre cancerous cells lazerd off already at 25 but I guess their "lucky" really if u can call it that! Im been too old for the injection since it came out and im still too young for a smear test soo like many others around my age of 24 where left in medical limbo and play a game of cervical cancer roulette

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cornfields said on 03 March 2014

Hi, my partner has just had to have his toncils out because had a secondary cancer found in lymphome in neck, which had come from his toncils, iv had a smear test come back mentioning hpv, iv had a biopsy and now waiting for results, has this happened to anyone else? Would be greatful for all info thanks :)

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Lp1989 said on 02 February 2014

Hi I'm 25 and I had my baby boy 11 months ago, my periods havnt been regular since but here is a typical month, I bleed for 3 days and then stop, finish for 2 days then come back on for 6 days?! They arnt exactly like this every month they differ but no normal. I have had a scan internally to check this out and it was clear :D the nurse says it could be my contraceptive pill but I get so worried! Can I ask what you think ladies?

Thanks

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patrycja21 said on 16 October 2012

Hi am 21 years old, and for the past week I had symptoms which led me to this web site, my last period was on the 5th and for the past 5 days every time I have intercourse with my husband I bleed.
I have a history of cancer on both sides of my family from my mother’s side her mother and grandmother both died from cancer.
And from my father’s side his mother died from cancer also, I don’t know his grandmother so do not know the cause of her death.
I tried to call a private clinic to ask for a test but it’s too expensive, and I can’t afford it.
Am really worried.

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cfarrant said on 14 March 2012

Is it possible to have cervical cancer if you are under 25 ?

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Stevie 1991 said on 09 March 2012

From the moment I became sexually active (16) I have always said that I would want screening frequently. I think it's ridiculous that 4 years on and I still can't be screen. The age for cervical screening needs to be lowered, and I don't understand why it isn't. So what if it costs the NHS money.. it could potentially save lives. Even if its 1 in 100, a life is a life.

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icar36 said on 26 January 2012

My concern about the screening of cervical cancer resides in the fact that the NHS seems to be oblivious of the fact that young girls engage in sexual activities earlier in their lives. The national screening is offered to women over 24 years old. Miss 'X' has requested a screening for crvical cancer at the age of 20 on the grounds of family history but was refused the screening by her GP at the time. Today she is 25 and has developped cervical cancer, and she is now at stage III...
This really calls for a review of the age at which a screening is systematically offered by the NHS...

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Jameswlsn77 said on 15 March 2011

That's very informative post. Cervical Cancer is a malignant neoplasm of the cervix or the cervical area. It may be vaginal bleeding but symptoms may be absent until the cancer is at an advanced stage. Treatment consists of surgery (including local excision) in early stages and chemotherapy and radiotherapy in advanced stages of the disease.

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