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What is cervical cancer?

The female reproductive system

Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the cervix — the entrance to the womb from the vagina.

Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by ongoing HPV infection, mainly by HPV types 16 and 18.

How common is cervical cancer?

Every year, more than 520,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and more than 260,000 women die from the disease worldwide. Although it is rare for young women to die from cervical cancer, it is the third most common cancer in women aged 25-49 in the UK.

Cervical cancer cases (2014) and deaths (2014) in the UK

How common is cervical cancer map statistics

HPV has been found in 99.7% of cervical cancers and is therefore thought to cause most if not all cases of cervical cancer. In Europe, around 75% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV types 16 and 18.

As well as an ongoing HPV infection, the risk of developing cervical cancer may be increased by:

  • Smoking
  • Young age at first sexual intercourse
  • High number of lifetime sexual partners
  • Long-term use of oral contraceptives
  • Other infections such as HIV or chlamydia
  • Family history of cervical cancer

How does cervical cancer develop?

Cervical cancer develops in the cervix, the entrance to the womb at the top of the vagina. It is caused by certain types of the HPV virus, which are mainly passed on through sexual contact. There are many different types of HPV, but only some types can lead to cervical cancer. People infected with HPV would not usually know as there are often no symptoms.

Most of the time HPV infections go away naturally. However, if the virus stays active in the body for a long period of time, cervical cells may begin to change and could become pre-cancerous lesions (known as ‘cervical intraepithelial neoplasia’ or ‘CIN’). These lesions could go back to normal or may continue to grow and develop into cancer. This can happen over a number of years and often without any symptoms. The resulting cancer may continue to divide, enlarge and invade the surrounding tissues and organs.

Can cervical cancer be prevented?

Cervical smear tests

Going for regular cervical smear tests can help protect against cervical cancer. This cervical screening can detect changes to the cervix that may lead to cervical cancer and can test for the presence of HPV. All women are initially invited for cervical screening at 25 years of age, but a test may be offered before then if the doctor feels it's necessary.

After their first test, women are invited for follow-up testing every three or five years depending on their age. Being screened regularly means that any abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix can be identified at an early stage and treatment can be initiated if necessary so that the cancer can be stopped from developing.

HPV vaccination

HPV vaccination can help prevent infection from certain types of HPV and can help protect against certain types of HPV that are most commonly associated with causing cervical cancer. HPV vaccines do not provide protection against all the HPV types that can cause cervical cancer. So, even if vaccinated against HPV, it's still important to have regular cervical smear tests when invited to do so.

Safe sex and a healthy lifestyle

Having safe sex and leading a healthy lifestyle (for example, not smoking) can also help protect against cervical cancer. Although the use of condoms can reduce the risk of HPV infection, they will not always protect from it. The virus lives on the skin in and around the genital area and is passed on through skin-to-skin contact, including oral sex, and not through bodily fluids. However, condoms help protect against many other sexually transmitted diseases as well as unplanned pregnancy, so it is still very important to use a condom when planning to have sex.

Speak to your GP or nurse to get further information about helping protect against cervical cancer.

Information provided on this website is not intended to replace the advice of a healthcare professional.

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