What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that develops in a woman's cervix - the entrance to the womb from the vagina.
Around 3,000 cervical cancer cases are diagnosed in the UK every year.
Cervical cancer is usually caused by the HPV virus. Most cases of cervical cancer are picked up during routine NHS cervical screening through smear tests.
There are two types of cervical cancer, named after the kind of cells that become cancerous:
- Squamous cell cancer is the most common type of cervical cancer
- Adenocarcinoma accounts for between one in 10 and one in 20 cases
What causes cervical cancer?
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by a persistent infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Genital HPV is spread by intimate contact during sex. It is thought to be a common condition, with an estimated one in three women developing an HPV infection within two years of starting to have regular sex. The types of HPV that cause genital warts do not usually cause cervical cell changes that develop into cervical cancer.
There are several types of HPV that are known to have a higher risk of causing cervical cancer. Two main types are:
- HPV16, accounting for around 50-55% of all cases
- HPV18, accounting for around 15-20% of all cases
HPV can lay dormant for many years before it starts damaging the cells of the cervix causing a pre-cancerous condition called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN). Most women who are infected with HPV do not develop CIN - however, HPV infection increases the risk.
Most women who have CIN do not go on to develop cervical cancer.
Girls aged 12 and older in the UK are offered an HPV vaccine to help protect them from cervical cancer.
Other factors can increase the chance of getting cervical cancer:
- Other sexually transmitted infections: Some research has suggested that herpes and chlamydia, when in combination with HPV, increases the risk of squamous cell cervical cancer
- Smoking: Researchers have found cancer causing chemicals in the cervical mucus of women who smoke. They believe these chemicals may damage the cervix
- A weakened immune system: People with a weakened immune system at a higher risk of developing cancers, including cervical cancer
- The pill: Several studies have shown that women who take the oral contraceptive pill are at a higher risk of getting cervical cancer, but scientists do not understand why
- Circumcision: Some research suggests that women whose partners have been circumcised are less likely to get cervical cancer, possibly because these men are less likely to carry the HPV virus
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
The most common symptom of cervical cancer is bleeding from the vagina when you are not having your period.
Women may also experience bleeding after sex
Other symptoms are: