Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). It’s a very common virus and often spreads during unprotected sex. A lot of types of HPV are harmless, but some can damage cells in the cervix and eventually cause cancer if they’re not treated. Since 2008, girls aged 12-13 in the UK have been offered vaccination against HPV.
The most common symptom of cervical cancer is bleeding from the vagina. If you notice bleeding between periods or during/after sex, you should book an appointment with a doctor straightaway. (Noticing blood doesn’t mean you have cancer, though.) Other symptoms can include pain in your pelvis and pain during sex, and a bad-smelling vaginal discharge.
How’s it diagnosed?
If you notice potential symptoms of cervical cancer, your doctor might arrange for you to have a colposcopy. This is an internal vaginal examination, done using a small microscope with a light at the end. A tissue sample might be taken during the colposcopy so it can be examined for cancer cells under a microscope.
You can find out more about techniques used to identify cancer in our Getting diagnosed section.
How’s it treated?
Cervical cancer is treated differently depending on how advanced it is. If cells are found in your cervix that are abnormal but haven’t turned cancerous, doctors can use various treatments to kill or get rid of them. This is often painless, and sometimes involves a laser or small electric current being applied to the affected area.
If cells have become cancerous but the cancer is diagnosed early on, the most common treatments include surgery to remove part or all of the womb, radiotherapy to kill cancerous cells, or a combination of both of these.
If the cancer is more advanced, doctors usually use a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. You might have surgery after this too.
Find out more about cancer treatments.