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.

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.

TheNHS offers a cervical screening programmeto all women from the age of25. 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 arecaused byan 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.

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 whohavethem 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.

In some cases, it's possible to leave the womb in place, but itmay need to be removed. The surgical procedure used to remove the womb iscalled 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 .

These can arise as a direct result of the cancer or as a side effect of treatments such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy andsurgery.

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

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%

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 aged between 30 and 45. Cervical cancer is very rare in women under 25.

Content provided by NHS Choices

Medically Reviewed by a doctor on 5 Jan 2017
Content supplied by NHS Choices