Cervical cancer

Your health experts: Dr Karin Hellner, Consultant in Gynaecology and Lead Colposcopist and Dr Samantha Wild, Women’s Health Clinical Lead at Bupa
Content editor review by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, May 2022
Next review due May 2025

Cervical cancer is when the cells of your cervix (the neck of your womb) become abnormal and grow out of control. A virus called human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer.

About cervical cancer

Around 3,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year.

Cervical cancer is more common when you’re younger. More than half of people who get cervical cancer in the UK each year are under 45.

Cervical screening (smear test) can discover human papillomavirus (HPV) infection and any changes in the cells of your cervix before they develop into cancer. HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer. If abnormal cells are caught early, cervical cancer can often be prevented. The NHS cervical screening programme saves thousands of lives every year.

Image showing the cervix and transformation zone

Types of cervical cancer

There are two main types of cervical cancer; they are named after the type of cell that becomes cancerous.

  • Squamous cell cancer. About 8 out of 10 cervical cancers are squamous cell cancer. Squamous cells are flat skin cells that cover your cervix (the neck of your womb).
  • Adenocarcinoma. More than 1 in 10 cervical cancers are adenocarcinoma. Adenocarcinoma is a cancer that starts in glandular cells found in the passageway from your cervix to your womb.

You can also have a mix of the two types. Other types of cancer of the cervix include small cell cancer and lymphoma but these are very rare.

Causes of cervical cancer


Almost all cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many different types of HPV. Those that increase the risk of cancer are known as high-risk HPV.

HPV is a common virus that most people will get at some stage in their life. You can get it through having sex or sexual contact.

HPV doesn’t usually cause any symptoms and your immune system can fight it off, so you may never know you were infected. But for some people, the virus can stay in their body and cause the abnormal cells that can lead to cervical cancer. This may happen many years after the original infection.

In the UK, there’s a national vaccination programme against HPV for boys and girls aged 12 and 13. This programme aims to reduce the number of cervical and other cancers caused by HPV.

There’s also a vaccination programme for men who have sex with men up to 45 years of age. Ask your GP if you have any questions about whether or not you’re eligible for this. For more information, see our FAQ: Does human papilloma virus (HPV) cause cancer in men?

Other risk factors

Not all high-risk HPV infections lead to cancer. This means there must be other things that make some people more likely to develop cervical cancer. If you’re infected with HPV, other things that might increase your risk of cervical cancer include:

  • smoking
  • having a weakened immune system – for example, because of HIV or immunosuppressant medicines
  • having more than five babies or having children when you’re under 17
  • having other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as chlamydia and herpes
  • taking the oral contraceptive pill for longer than five years
  • a family history (if your mother, brothers or sisters had it)

Symptoms of cervical cancer

You might not have any symptoms in the early stages of cervical cancer. This is why it’s important to have regular cervical screening. Cervical screening is offered to all people with a cervix, aged between 25 and 64. If you’re registered as male with your GP, you won’t be invited automatically. Ask your GP, or a local sexual health or family planning clinic, to arrange cervical screening for you.

If abnormal cells develop into cervical cancer, you might develop symptoms. These may include:

  • abnormal vaginal bleeding – for example, bleeding between periods, after you have sex or after you’ve been through the menopause
  • a vaginal discharge, which may smell unpleasant and have blood or mucus in it
  • pain when you have sex
  • pain in your pelvis or back

These symptoms aren't always caused by cervical cancer. But if you have them, go and see your GP.

Diagnosis of cervical cancer


The earliest signs that cervical cancer may be developing are usually picked up by cervical screening (a smear test). If this shows a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, your cell sample will be tested for abnormal cells on your cervix (the neck of your womb). If you don’t have HPV, your cervical cells don’t need to be tested because HPV is by far the main cause of cervical cancer.

  • If you have HPV but no cell changes, your GP practice will offer you another smear test in a year’s time to check that the infection has gone.
  • If you have abnormal cells or have symptoms of cervical cancer, your GP will refer you to a gynaecologist. This is a doctor who specialises in women’s reproductive health.


If you have abnormal cells or symptoms of cervical cancer, you’ll be given an appointment at a colposcopy clinic. A colposcopy is a test that uses a magnifying instrument called a colposcope to examine your cervix. A doctor or nurse who has training in colposcopy will do the test.

Your doctor or nurse will look at your cervix and may take a small sample of tissue (a biopsy). The sample will be sent to a laboratory to be tested to see if the cells are abnormal and if so, how abnormal they are. Sometimes, your doctor might remove all of the abnormal cells straight away.

If you’re pregnant, it’s safe for you to have a colposcopy. If your doctor finds any abnormal pre-cancerous cells, treatment can normally wait until after you have your baby.

Treatment for abnormal cells

To remove the abnormal cells, your doctor will usually use a loop of wire with an electrical current passing through it, although there are other ways. This is called large-loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ), or loop diathermy. Your doctor or nurse will send the cells they remove to a laboratory to be tested.

If your tests show that you have cervical cancer, your doctor may ask you to have a further test involving a scan. This might be a CT (computed tomography) scan, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan or a PET (positron emission tomography) scan. This is to see how far the cancer has grown into the tissues around your cervix and if it has spread further.

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Treatment of cervical cancer

Your cervical cancer treatment will depend on the stage of cervical cancer and your general health. The stage of a cancer means how far it has grown and if it has spread to nearby lymph nodes or elsewhere in your body.

The main treatments are either surgery or a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy (chemoradiotherapy). Your treatment may affect your fertility. Ask your specialist doctor (gynaecological oncologist) about this if you think you may want to have children in the future. They’ll explain the different treatments in more detail, what they involve and discuss which is best for you.


The standard operation for cervical cancer is a hysterectomy, which involves removing your womb and cervix. The top of your vagina and some of the lymph nodes in your pelvis will be removed too. Lymph nodes (or glands) are part of your body’s natural defence system – the lymphatic system.

If you have early-stage cancer and you want to have children, it might be possible to have a procedure that will preserve your fertility. This is called a radical trachelectomy. In this operation, your surgeon will remove most of your cervix but leave enough behind so that you can still have a baby. They’ll also remove the lymph nodes in your pelvis.


The main non-surgical treatment for cervical cancer is chemoradiotherapy or chemoradiation. This is where you have both chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Chemotherapy is a treatment to destroy cancer cells with medicines. Radiotherapy uses radiation – a beam of radiation is targeted on the cancerous cells to shrink the tumour.

You may have chemoradiotherapy as your only treatment or you might have it after surgery.

Treatment for advanced cervical cancer

If your cancer has spread into only one part of your body, you may have radiotherapy with chemotherapy.

If your cervical cancer is what’s called stage 4b, it means it has spread to another part of your body. Your doctor may call this secondary or metastatic cancer. There are treatments available. While they’re unlikely to remove your cancer completely, they may be able to control it for some time and improve your quality of life. Your doctor may suggest a combination of chemotherapy and a type of biological therapy that slows down the growth of cancer cells.

Having treatment

Your cancer team will give you advice on what cervical cancer treatment is possible and most likely to help. All these treatments have different side-effects. Some are more difficult to get through than others. Talk to your cancer specialist about the side-effects of cervical cancer treatment, and make sure you know how the side-effects might affect you.

You’ll need to go into hospital as an inpatient (where you stay overnight) for some treatments. For other treatments, you may be able to be an outpatient (where you visit the hospital for your treatment but go home afterwards).

Prevention of cervical cancer

There are things you can do to help prevent cervical cancer.

  • Have regular cervical screening to pick up and treat any pre-cancerous cells in your cervix (neck of the womb). Ask your GP if you would like to have a smear test but aren’t on the screening list.
  • Have the HPV vaccine – this is now offered to all young people between 12 and 13 across the UK. It’s best to still go for your screening appointments even if you’ve had the HPV vaccine.
  • Use condoms. These offer some protection against HPV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Help and support

An important part of cancer treatment includes the support to help deal with the emotional aspects as well as the physical symptoms. Specialist cancer doctors and nurses are experts in providing the support you need and they may visit you at home. If you have more advanced cancer, further support is available in hospices, hospital or at home; this is called palliative care. For links to further support and information, see our section: Other helpful websites.

Cervical cancer is mainly caused by a type of the human papilloma virus (HPV) known as high-risk HPV. This virus is very common and you can catch it through sexual contact. You won’t usually get any symptoms from HPV and your immune system can often fight it off. But it can sometimes stay in the body and cause the abnormal cells that can lead to cervical cancer. Cervical screening (smear test) can help you find out if you have an HPV infection.

For more information, see our section: Causes of cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer usually affects younger people. Every year in the UK, more than half of people diagnosed with cervical cancer are under the age of 45. It’s the second most common cancer in women under 35 years in the UK.

Yes, treatment for cervical cancer may affect your sex life. It’s best to wait a few weeks after having radiotherapy or surgery for cervical cancer until you have sex again. If you have a hysterectomy or radiotherapy, it may cause an early menopause. Radiotherapy can have side-effects that may affect your sex life. There are treatments to help with other effects such as vaginal dryness, narrowing or having less interest in sex. Ask your doctor for more information.

Yes, it is best to still go for your screening appointments. The HPV vaccine protects against the two types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer. But it doesn't protect against other types of HPV that are linked with cervical cancer.

Yes, HPV can cause cancer in men, including anal cancer, cancer of the penis and cancers of the tonsils, tongue or throat (head and neck cancers). There’s a national vaccination programme against HPV for boys aged 12 and 13 to reduce the number of cancers caused by HPV. There’s also a programme up to the age of 45 for men who have sex with men.

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