Cancer of the cervix, also known as 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's a cause for concern. It’s important to see 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.
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 changed cells can become cancerous. However, cell changes in the cervix can be detected at a very early stage, and treatments can reduce the risk of cervical cancer developing.
The NHS offers a national screening programme for all women over 24 years old. 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.
It is recommended that women who are between 25 and 49 years old are screened every three years, and women between 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 screening for cervical cancer in our Screening Zone.
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 sometimes it will need to be removed. The surgical procedure that is used to remove the womb is known as a hysterectomy. Radiotherapy is an alternative to surgery for some women with early stage cervical cancer.
More advanced cases of cervical cancer are usually treated using a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Radiotherapy can also cause infertility as a side effect.
Read more about treating cervical cancer.
Causes of cervical cancer
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus that's spread during sex. It's a common cause of genital warts.
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. This causes them to reproduce uncontrollably and trigger the onset of cancer.
Two distinct strains of the HPV virus are known to be responsible for 70% of all cases of cervical cancer. They are HPV 16 and HPV 18. Most women who are infected with these two types of HPV are unaffected, which means that there must be additional factors that make some women more vulnerable to HPV infection than others.
Read more about the causes of cervical cancer.
In 2008, a national vaccination programme was launched to vaccinate girls against HPV 16 and HPV 18. The vaccine is most effective if it's given a few years before a girl becomes sexually active, so it's given to girls between the ages of 12 and 13.
There are two types of HPV vaccination:
cervarix - which only provides protection against cervical cancer
gardasil - which provides protection against cervical cancer and genital warts
The NHS vaccination programme in Scotland began using the gardasil vaccination from August 2012. Before this date the cervarix vaccination was used.
Neither vaccine provides complete protection against all the types of HPV that are known to cause cervical cancer. Therefore, if you have been vaccinated you'll still need to attend your future screening appointments.
Read more about HPV vaccination and preventing cervical cancer.
Complications of 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 that are associated with cervical cancer can range from the relatively minor, such as minor bleeding from the vagina or having to urinate frequently, to being life-threatening, such as severe bleeding from the vagina or kidney failure.
Read more about the complications of cervical cancer.
Who is affected by cervical cancer?
Due to the success of the NHS screening programme, cervical cancer is now an uncommon type of cancer in the UK. However, it's still a common cause of cancer-related death in countries that don't offer screening.
It's possible for women of all ages to develop cervical cancer. However, the condition mainly affects sexually active women between 25 and 45 years old. Many women who are affected did not attend their screening appointments.
In 2007, nearly 2,800 cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed in UK. In addition, about 25,000 cases were diagnosed with a precancerous condition of the cervix called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN).
The stage at which cervical cancer is diagnosed is an important factor in determining a woman’s outlook. For example, if the cancer is still at an early stage, the outlook will usually be very good and a complete cure is often possible. See diagnosing cervical cancer for more information about staging.
More than 90% of women with stage one cervical cancer will live at least five years after receiving a diagnosis. Many women will live much longer. Researchers used five years as a cut-off point because cancer is unlikely to recur after five years and most women can consider themselves cured after five years.
Around 1 in 3 people with the more advanced type of cervical cancer will live at least five years.
Another important factor is a woman’s age when cervical cancer first develops. Older women usually have a worse outlook than younger women.
In the UK there were around 950 deaths due to cervical cancer in 2008.