In 2015, around 3,100 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK.
Cervical cancer develops in a woman's cervix which is the entrance to the womb from the vagina. Cervical cancer is more common in younger women and usually affects sexually active women aged between 30 and 45.
The main cause of cervical cancer is a persistent infection of certain types of the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a common virus, and in most cases your immune system clears the infection without any problems.
Cancer of the cervix often has no symptoms in its early stages. The most common symptom 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.
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 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.
A colposcopy is a test to have a look at the cervix in detail. The doctor or specialist nurse takes samples of any abnormal areas. A colposcope is a large magnifying glass that a doctor or specialist nurse uses to closely look at the skin-like covering of the cervix. By looking through it, the colposcopist can see changes that may be too small to see with the naked eye. They can take samples of any abnormal areas on the cervix. For most women, this is a painless examination. If your doctor or nurse finds an area of abnormal cells, you might have treatment there and then. They call this see and treat. Or they may wait until they have the biopsy results.
A cone biopsy may also be carried out. This is a small operation under general anaesthetic to remove a cone shaped piece of tissue from your cervix for further testing. A cone biopsy is also a treatment for abnormal cervical cells that have been picked up through cervical screening. The abnormal cells might be on the outer surface of the cervix, or the inner part of the cervix. If left untreated, abnormal cervical cells might develop into 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.
The best way to protect yourself from cervical cancer is by attending cervical screening. 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.
Since 2008, the HPV vaccine has been routinely offered to girls aged 12 and 13.