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Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer starts in the cervix, where the uterus (womb) connects to the vagina. Find out more about cervical cancer symptoms and how it’s treated.

What is cervical cancer?

The cervix is a strong muscle located in the lower part of the uterus (womb) and connects to the vagina. Cervical cancer develops when abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix grow and eventually form a tumour (growth). Cervical cancer mainly affects sexually active women between the ages of 30 and 45.

Cervical cancer symptoms

Cervical cancer doesn’t tend to have any symptoms in its early stages. Some women may experience abnormal bleeding from their vagina. Irregular bleeding can happen:

  • Before, during or after sex

  • Between periods

  • After the menopause

It’s important not to worry if you do experience abnormal bleeding. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have cervical cancer. But you should make an appointment to see the GP as soon as possible to get it checked out.

Other cervical cancer symptoms may include:

  • Unusual vaginal discharge that looks or smells different

  • Pain in the lower back or pelvis

  • Pain or discomfort during sex

  • Needing to pee more often

  • Experiencing pain when peeing

These symptoms can be experienced with other medical conditions, like urinary tract infections (UTIs), so it’s essential to see the doctor and get the treatment you need.

If you’ve got cervical cancer and it’s at an advanced stage, you may experience symptoms, like:

  • Severe pain in your side, lower back, or pelvis

  • Constipation

  • Needing to pee or poo more than usual

  • Losing control of your bladder (urinary incontinence)

  • Losing control of your bowels (bowel incontinence)

  • Severe vaginal bleeding

  • Swelling in one or both your legs

Cervical cancer causes

Nearly all cervical cancer cases are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus that’s passed on through any type of sexual contact.

There are more than 100 different kinds of HPV, but the two most responsible strains for causing cervical cancer are HPV 16 and HPV 18.

Using a condom during sex will give you some protection against HPV. But it doesn’t always prevent infection because the virus is also spread through skin-to-skin contact.

Since 2008, girls aged between 12 and 13 have been routinely offered the HPV vaccine. Boys who are 12-13 years old are now also being offered the vaccination.

Screening for cervical cancer

One of the easiest ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer is through regular cervical screening (often called a ‘smear test’). Screening picks up precancerous cells in the cervix, which can be treated before they develop into cervical cancer.

Women aged 25 to 49 are offered cervical screening every 3 years. From 50 to 64 years, they’re offered screening every 5 years.

During your cervical screening, a nurse will insert a smooth, tube-shaped device called a speculum into your vagina to look at your cervix. They will then use a small brush to take a tiny sample of cells to be checked under a microscope for any abnormalities.

The test only takes about 5 minutes, and there’s nothing to be worried or embarrassed about, and you can ask the nurse to stop at any time.

An abnormal test result doesn’t mean you’ve got cervical cancer. Most abnormal results are due to the presence of HPV or precancerous cells, or both.

Cervical cancer treatment

If you’re diagnosed with cervical cancer, and it’s at an early stage, you’ll usually be offered surgery.

There are several different types of cervical cancer surgery, including:

  • Cryosurgery – A small metal probe is placed directly on the cervix, which freezes the abnormal cells. You may have a watery brown vaginal discharge for a few weeks afterwards.

  • Laser surgery – Sometimes called laser ablation, this involves a laser beam burning off the abnormal cells on your cervix.

  • Hysterectomy – Removes the entire womb (uterus) and cervix. If the top of your vagina is also removed, this is called a radical hysterectomy.

  • Trachelectomy – This procedure removes the cervix and the top of the vagina, but it keeps the uterus in place so that you can still have children.

Other cervical cancer treatments include:

  • Radiotherapy – This kills cancer cells using radiation. It’s an option if you have early-stage cervical cancer. Radiotherapy may be used in combination with surgery or chemotherapy, or both.

  • Chemotherapy – If you’ve got advanced cervical cancer, you’ll probably be offered both chemotherapy (a type of medicine that kills cancer cells) and radiotherapy.

The above treatments can have long-lasting side effects, like infertility and bringing on early menopause. The doctor will discuss the side effects of your cervical cancer treatment with you.

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

Lead GP at Livi

Last updated: