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Spotting cancer early saves lives

Your questions answered

What is the cervix and what is cervical cancer?

The cervix is the entrance to the womb from the vagina, also known as the neck of the womb. Cervical cancer happens when abnormal cells on the cervix grow out of control. The main cause of cervical cancer is the human papilloma virus (HPV) – a common virus which in most cases is cleared by your immune system without any problems.

What are the main symptoms?

The main symptoms of cervical cancer are:

  • Abnormal bleeding
  • Discomfort during sex
  • Unusual vaginal discharge
  • Pain between the hips.

It is important that you go and see your GP if you have any of these symptoms.

Why is it important to spot cervical cancer early?

Cervical cancer is very treatable if caught early, with around 95% of women diagnosed at stage 1 surviving for at least five years after diagnosis. However, just under 1,000 women die from cervical cancer every year. This is why screening and being aware of symptoms is so important.

How can I get cervical screening (a smear test)?

To have a screening test, you can either book at your GP surgery or at your local sexual health clinic. Find it here:

What will happen during my smear test?

The appointment should take no longer than 20 minutes, with the procedure itself taking around three minutes. The nurse will explain what is going to happen beforehand and answer any questions or concerns you may have.

You will be asked to undress from the waist down and to lie on an examination bed on your back either with your legs bent up or with your ankles together and your knees apart. A paper sheet will be placed over the lower half of your body. The nurse will then insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. The speculum will be gently opened inside your vagina, allowing the nurse to see your cervix. A specially designed brush is used to take a sample of cells from your cervix.

The nurse will collect the sample from the area of the cervix called the transformation zone. The sampled cells are immersed in a vial of liquid to help preserve them and are then looked at under a microscope in a laboratory.

What if I have an abnormal smear test?

Cervical screening is a test to detect changes to the cells in the cervix, which are called cervical abnormalities. Between 90 and 94 per cent of all cervical screening results come back normal. Even an abnormal screening result rarely means cancer.

If abnormal cells are found and the doctors are concerned that these could change into cancer in the future, a number of treatment options are available to remove the abnormal cells. For more information visit NHS Choices.

If it is found that you do have cancer, you will be referred to a specialist team at a hospital who will decide the best treatment options for you. This will depend on the stage of the cancer and in most cases, the options will be:

  • Early cervical cancer – surgery to remove some or all of the womb, radiotherapy or a combination of both.
  • Advanced cervical cancer – radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy, in some case surgery will also be used.

Why is cervical screening only open to women aged between 25 and 64?

Women under the age of 25 aren't routinely invited for cervical screening because experts agree that normal developmental cell changes in the cervix can look very similar to abnormal cell changes, leading to unnecessary treatment and worry. Cervical cancer is also very rare in this age group.

If you're under the age of 25 and worried about your risk of developing cervical cancer, or you're concerned about other aspects of your sexual health, visit your GP or your local GUM clinic for advice.

Women aged 65 and over whose last three test results were normal aren't invited for further cervical screening tests. This is because it's very unlikely that women in this group will go on to develop cervical cancer.

If you're over 64 and have had abnormal test results, you'll continue to be invited for screening until the cells return to normal. Women aged 65 and over who have never had screening are entitled to a test.

Do I still need to have cervical screening if I have not had sex before?

Cervical screening aims to detect abnormal cells in the cervix that could develop into cancer. If you’ve never had any sexual contact with a man or a woman (this includes penetrative sex and skin-to-skin contact of the genital area), your risk of developing cervical cancer is very low. Women who have never been sexually active may therefore decide not to have a cervical screening test when invited. However, you can still have a test if you want one. If you’re not sure, talk to your GP or practice nurse.

How can I prevent cervical cancer?

Practice safe sex
As most cases of cervical cancer are linked to the human papilloma virus (HPV) which can spread through unprotected sex, using a condom can reduce the risk of developing the infection.

Cervical cancer vaccination
Girls aged 12-13 are now offered a vaccination that protects against four types of HPV. Although the vaccine can significantly reduce the risk of cervical cancer, it doesn’t guarantee that you won’t develop it. It is therefore important that you still attend screening tests.

Avoid smoking
People who smoke are less able to get rid of the HPV infection from their body, which can develop into cancer.. So it’s important not to smoke to reduce your chances of getting cervical cancer.

Find local help to stop smoking here.

Attend screening
Regular screening is the best way to identify abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix at an early stage.