Overview - Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer develops in a woman's cervix (the entrance to the womb from the vagina). It mainly affects sexually active women aged between 30 and 45.

Symptoms of cervical cancer

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

Abnormal bleeding doesn't mean you have cervical cancer, but you should see your GP as soon as possible to get it checked out.

If your GP thinks you might have cervical cancer, you should be referred to see a specialist within 2 weeks.

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

Screening for cervical cancer

The best way to protect yourself from cervical cancer is by attending cervical screening (previously known as a "smear test") when invited.

The NHS Cervical Screening Programme invites all women from the age of 25 to 64 to attend cervical screening. Women aged 25 to 49 are offered screening every 3 years and those aged 50 to 64 are offered screening every 5 years.

During cervical screening, a small sample of cells is taken from the cervix and checked under a microscope for abnormalities. In some areas, the screening sample is first checked for human papilloma virus (HPV), the virus that can cause abnormal cells.

An abnormal cervical screening test result does not mean you definitely have cancer. Most abnormal results are due to signs of HPV, the presence of treatable precancerous cells, or both, rather than cancer itself.

You should be sent a letter confirming when it's time for your screening appointment. Contact your GP if you think you may be overdue.

Read more about cervical screening.

What causes cervical cancer?

Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by 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 types (strains) of HPV, many of which are harmless. However, some types can cause abnormal changes to the cells of the cervix, which can eventually lead to cervical cancer.

Two strains, HPV 16 and HPV 18, are known to be responsible for most cases of cervical cancer. They don't have any symptoms, so women will not realise they have it.

But these infections are very common, and most women who have them do not develop cervical cancer.

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

Since 2008, the 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 another option for some women with early-stage cervical cancer. In some cases, it's used alongside surgery or chemotherapy, or both.

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

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

Read more about treating cervical cancer.

Complications

Some women with cervical cancer may develop 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, like some bleeding from the vagina or having to pee frequently, to life-threatening, such as severe bleeding or kidney failure.

Read more about the complications of cervical cancer.

Page last reviewed: 11/05/2018
Next review due: 11/05/2021