Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is cancer of your cervix – part of the female reproductive system, at the entrance to the uterus from the vagina.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2023

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is when cells in your cervix grow abnormally and in an uncontrolled way. This usually happens slowly and rarely causes symptoms in the early stages.

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35. It’s nearly always due to the human papilloma virus (HPV) which can cause changes in cells in your cervix. Abnormal cervical cells don’t cause any symptoms but can progress into cancer. Screening for cell abnormalities (the cervical smear test) can help prevent cancer from developing in the first place.

How to tell if you have cervical cancer

The most common symptoms of cervical cancer include:

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Book an appointment

Diagnosis and tests for cervical cancer

Cervical cancer and cell abnormalities can be detected through regular screening. The cervical smear test is a procedure where a sample of cells are taken from the cervix and examined in a laboratory.

If you have an abnormal result or symptoms of cervical cancer, you’ll be referred to a gynaecologist (a specialist in the female reproductive system). Further tests include:

  • Colposcopy – to look at your cervix
  • Biopsy (a small tissue sample) – can be taken during a colposcopy, and is sent to a laboratory for further analysis

If these tests suggest you have cervical cancer, you may have further tests to assess if it’s spread to other parts of your body. These include blood tests, MRI or CT scans.

Causes of cervical cancer

HPV causes almost all cervical cancers. It’s a virus that’s spread through skin-to-sin contact in the genital area. Your immune system will usually clear up a HPV infection and most women won’t know they’ve got it.

Recurrent infection with high-risk types of HPV can cause cell abnormalities. These abnormal cells have a risk of developing into cervical cancer.

Common treatments for cervical cancer

Treatment is focussed on removing abnormal or cancerous cells. Although abnormal cells don’t cause any symptoms and might not develop into cancer, it’s usually recommended to have them removed anyway as a precaution.

Some of the procedures for this include:

  • Large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ) – a heated, thin wire loop is used to remove the cells during a colposcopy under local anaesthetic (so your cervix is numb during treatment)
  • Cone biopsy – used if a larger area of tissue needs to be removed, and is usually done under general anaesthetic (where you’re asleep)
  • Cryotherapy – to freeze and destroy abnormal cells
  • Laser treatment – to target and destroy cells
  • Cold coagulation – heat burns away the abnormal cells
  • Hysterectomy – this is only if you have recurrent abnormal cells, they’re very abnormal, you’re past childbearing age or you don’t want to have (more) children

If you’ve been diagnosed with cervical cancer, radiotherapy or chemotherapy is sometimes used after surgery to kill cancer cells and reduce the risk of cancer returning.