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What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer develops in the cervix. This is the opening between the vagina and the womb (uterus). Cervical cancer is most common in women in their 30s, but screening can help prevent it.

Concerned woman frowning

Cervical cancer affects your cervix, which is part of the female reproductive system. It is sometimes called the neck of the womb.

Cervical cancer happens when healthy cells in the cervix start behaving abnormally and growing uncontrollably. There are over 3,100 cases of cervical cancer in the UK each year.

Cervical cancer development

The initial stages of cells changes may be called ‘abnormal cells’ and these can resolve by themselves without further action. In some cases, these abnormal cells develop into a ‘pre-cancer’ which you may see referred to as Cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN). Cervical cancer occurs when the cells start invading into the cervical tissues.

Cervical cancer usually grows slowly. In people with healthy immune systems, it typically takes 15-20 years for cervical cancer to develop. Treatment will depend on how big the tumour is and if it has spread.

There are two main types of cervical cancer, squamous cell cancer and adenocarcinoma, which are named after the type of cell that becomes cancerous. The type you have will impact on treatments.

It may be helpful to familiarise yourself with the difference between abnormal cells, pre-cancers and the different stages of cervical cancers.

What causes cervical cancer?

Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV is the name given to a group of viruses with more than 100-different types. Not all of them are cancer causing, the ones that can cause cancer are known as high-risk HPV.

HPV is very common and most people will get the virus at some point in their life. It is spread through close skin-to-skin contact during any type of sexual activity with a partner

Most people won’t realise they have HPV and it can stay at very low or undetectable levels for many years without causing problems. In most cases, the body’s immune system will eliminate the virus within two years. This means a HPV infection may have come from a partner a long time ago.

Who is at risk of cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer rates in the UK are highest in women and people with a cervix aged 30–34 years. But younger and older women can still get cervical cancer so it’s important you attend screening appointments.

Although HPV is the most common risk factor for cervical cancer, there are other risk factors for developing cervical cancer:

  • if you have human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or AIDS however this might be reduced if you’re having treatment for HIV
  • if you have another sexually transmitted infection alongside HPV eg. chlamydia
  • smoking tobacco – 21% of cervical cancers cases in the UK are caused by smoking
  • taking the combined contraceptive pill for more than 5 years (this risk reduces once you stop taking it)
  • family history of cervical cancer in immediate female relatives (mother, sister, daughter)
  • having children - the risk is higher if you had your first baby before 17 than if you were over 25.

You can reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer  by attending your ​cervical cancer screening.

You can read more about risk factors on Cancer Research UK’s pages

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer? 

Cervical cancer often has no symptoms in its early stages. Most people are diagnosed through the NHS cervical screening programme. That’s why cervical screening is so important.

The most common symptoms of cervical cancer are:

  • unusual bleeding from your vagina. For example, between periods, after sex or after you have been through the menopause
  • pain during sex
  • differences to your vaginal discharge
  • pain in your lower tummy, lower back or between your hip bones (pelvis)

If you have these symptoms speak to your GP, don’t wait for your next screening appointment.

Why is screening important?

Screening is one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer. Since screening started in the UK, the number of women dying from cervical cancer has halved.

Also known as a smear test, cervical screening checks the health of your cervix. It’s not a test for cancer, but it can help prevent cancer by spotting any problems early.

You’re automatically invited for screening if you’re:

  • between the ages of 25 and 64
  • registered as female with a GP surgery

Trans men (assigned female at birth) do not receive invitations if registered as male with their GP, but are still entitled to screening if they have a cervix. If this applies to you, make sure you speak to your GP and ensure you are invited for screening.

What is the HPV Vaccine?

The HPV vaccine helps to protect against cancers caused by HPV as well as some types of genital warts. It is currently given as two separate doses but this will change to one dose from September 2023.

Boys and girls are offered the vaccine between 12 and 13 years old (Year 8 at school), but if they miss it for any reason, they can still get it for free on the NHS until their 25th birthday if:

  • girls were born after 1 September 1991
  • boys were born after 1 September 2006

The NHS website also has lots of information about the vaccine.

How is cervical cancer diagnosed?

If your smear test found signs of abnormal cells or if you spoke to your GP about possible symptoms, you’ll likely have follow-up tests.

The most common test is a colposcopy. During the appointment, a speculum will be placed into the vagina to enable the colposcopist to see your cervix, and a microscope with a light at the end is used to study the cervix in more detail (the microscope isn’t inserted into the vagina). The colposcopist may apply some dye to the cervix to help highlight any abnormal cells.

Depending on the result, you may have some other tests including:

  • a biopsy where a small same of cells and tissues are taken from your cervix
  • scans including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerised tomography (CT)
  • pelvic examination
  • blood tests
  • a hysteroscopy, which looks inside your womb using a narrow telescope

What are the treatments for cervical cancer? 

There are different treatments for cervical cancer. The best treatment will depend what type, grade and stage of cervical cancer you have.

Treatments for cervical cancer include:

  • surgery
  • chemotherapy – medicines to kill cancer cells
  • radiotherapy – high-energy rays of radiation to kill cancer cells
  • targeted medicines – drugs which target mutations or changes specific to the cancer cells

If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, it is likely that you will receive a combination of these treatments. Your doctor can discuss the options with you and you’ll be  able to ask them any questions that you might have.

It’s a good idea to discuss what your options are, and the benefits and risks of each so that you can reach a decision that is best for you.

Sometimes appointments can feel overwhelming so it can be helpful to write down your questions in advance and take a second person along for support.

For more information about cervical cancer treatments, visit the NHS website.

Can cervical cancer be cured?

Cervical cancer is often treatable, but this can depend on how early the cancer is detected. As with all cancers, catching it early makes it easier to treat. That’s why it’s important to attend your screening appointments and go to your GP if you spot any symptoms.


A diagnosis of cervical cancer can be overwhelming. But there are places you can go to get support.


Cancer Research UK

Eve Appeal

Jo's Trust

Lady Garden Foundation

Watch our webinars on cervical cancer

In our webinar about preventing cervical cancer. Experts discuss what cervical cancer is and why it’s so important to attend your screening appointments.

In our gynaecological cancers webinar, Dr Sarah Kitson, an expert in women;s cancers, discusses the most common symptoms of the five gynaecological cancers: cervical; ovarian; vulval; vaginal; and womb cancer She also explains who may be most at risk and the impact a diagnosis can have.

Read about our cervical cancer research

As a women’s health charity, wepart of what we do is fund research to save and change the lives of women, girls and babies.

Our research played a part in establishing the link between HPV and cervical cancer, resulting in the first preventative school-wide vaccination programme.

And we are currently co-funding a research study with the British Gynaecological Cancer Society to investigate if an innovative new technology can help detect and treat cervical and vulval cancers faster and more accurately.

More information

Watch our Instagram Live with Ambassador Dr Nighat Arif and Jo's Trust on cervical screening.