Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the cervix (the entrance to the womb from the vagina) of a woman. It is the most common cancer in women under 35 in the UK. Around 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK each year, that's around 8 women every day. However, the disease is largely preventable, thanks to cervical screening and the HPV vaccination programme.
What causes cervical cancer?
The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is responsible for almost all cases of cervical cancer. The virus can be passed on through any type of sexual contact with a man or woman. There are more than 100 different types of HPV, most of which are harmless. At least 15 types of HPV, including types 16 and 18 are considered high-risk for cervical cancer. These types of HPV contain genetic material that can be passed into the cells of the cervix. This material causes a mutation in cell DNA, disrupting normal cell activity. These abnormal cells reproduce rapidly, leading to the growth of a cancerous tumor.
HPV infection is relatively common. Most sexually active women will come into contact with at least one type of HPV during their lifetime. However, not all women infected with HPV will develop cervical cancer. For most the virus causes no harm and is suppressed by the body's immune system.
Most types of HPV don't cause any symptoms so many men and women won't realise they have the infection.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
There are usually no obvious symptoms with early stages of cervical cancer. This is why regular cervical screening is very important in detecting abnormalities of the cervix.
Vaginal bleeding is usually the first noticeable symptom of cervical cancer. If you experience bleeding at any time other than your expected monthly period, visit your GP for advice.
If the cancer spreads out of the cervix and into surrounding tissue and organs, you may experience further symptoms such as:
- blood in your urine
- urinary incontinence (unintentional passing of urine)
- uncomfortable or irregular urination
- swelling of one of your legs
- pain in your side or back
Preventing cervical cancer
- Since 2008, the HPV vaccine has been offered to girls aged 12 to 13 as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme
- Protected sex (e.g. using a condom) can significantly reduce your risk of HPV infection
- Regular cervical screening can help identify abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix at an early stage. The NHS offers a cervical screening programme to all women aged 25 or above.
- Removing or destroying abnormal cervical cells at an early stage can prevent cervical cancer
- Avoid smoking - Smoking weakens the immune system, leaving you at greater risk of HPV infection
How is cervical cancer treated?
Treatment for cervical cancer usually depends on how far the cancer has spread.
Treatments for early cervical cancer include:
- surgery to remove some or all of the womb
- radiotherapy to destroy cancerous cells
Treatments for advanced cervical cancer include:
- radical surgery (removing the womb and vagina as well as any part of the bladder, bowel or rectum the cancer has spread into)