Cervical cancer

Find out about the symptoms of cervical cancer, how cervical cancer is diagnosed and treated, and the link between cervical cancer and HPV.

  • Cervical cancer is usually caused by a common virus called the human papillomavirus (HPV) 
  • It’s a very common virus with lots of different strains and most are harmless 
  • HPV is usually spread during sex (including oral and anal sex) and skin-to-skin contact of the genital area 
  • Common symptoms are bleeding from the vagina, pain in your pelvis, pain after sex, and bad smelling discharge 
  • You can help protect yourself and others from some types of cancer by having the HPV vaccine, if you’re eligible

What causes cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is a cancer found anywhere in the cervix. The cervix connects the womb and the vagina. Anyone with a cervix can develop cervical cancer. Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by a common virus called the human papillomavirus (HPV). 

HPV is a very common virus, with lots of different strains. Most people will get some type of it during their life. 

A lot of types of HPV are harmless, but some can cause changes in cells that can sometimes lead to cancer. 

HPV is usually spread during sex. It doesn’t have to be penetrative sex – it can be spread through skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, oral sex and sharing sex toys, as well as vaginal and anal sex. 

Because of how it is usually spread, HPV can cause changes to cells which can lead to cancers in different parts of the body, like the cervix, penis, anus, vulva, vagina, and some kinds of head and neck cancers. 

As of September 2023, the vaccine is given through one injection for young people under 25. 

Find out more about the HPV jab.

What are common cervical cancer symptoms?

The most common symptom of cervical cancer is unusual bleeding from the vagina. This includes bleeding between periods or bleeding that’s unusually heavy.  

If you notice bleeding between periods or during/after sex, you should book an appointment with a doctor straight away. 

Noticing blood doesn’t mean you have cancer. Unusual bleeding can be a sign of lots of different things that are also important to rule out, like infections. Your GP will be able to run through what might be happening.

Other symptoms of cervical cancer can be:

  • pain in your pelvis
  • pain during sex
  • a bad-smelling discharge from your vagina.

How is cervical cancer diagnosed?

If you spot signs which could be cervical cancer, your doctor might arrange for you to have a colposcopy.

This is where a specialist looks inside your vagina using a small microscope with a light at the end. A tissue sample might be taken during the colposcopy so it can be looked at closely for cancer cells under a microscope.

Anyone with a cervix should be offered a cervical screening (sometimes called a ‘smear test’) once they reach the age of 25. You should then be offered this screening every three years. The screening is used to help stop cervical cancer developing. 

You can find out more in our Getting diagnosed section.

Cervical cancer treatment

Cervical cancer is treated differently depending on what stage it’s at.

If cells are found in your cervix that are abnormal but haven’t turned cancerous, doctors can use different treatments to kill or get rid of them. This doesn’t usually hurt, and is sometimes done by a laser or small electric current being applied to the affected area.

If cells have become cancerous but the cancer is found early on, you will usually have an operation to remove the cervix and all or part of the uterus. You could also be offered radiotherapy to kill the cancerous cells.

If the cancer is more advanced then you will be offered radiotherapy, and maybe a combination of chemotherapy and surgery.

Find out more about cancer treatments.

Treatment for cervical cancer can mean that getting pregnant might be harder or not possible. That can be really tough to face. However, there are often things you can do to increase your chances of having a family in the future – your treatment team will be happy to talk to you about this. Find our more in our section on fertility.

This page was reviewed in 2024. It will reviewed again in 2027.

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