Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that develops in a woman’s cervix (the entrance to the womb from the vagina). Cancer of the cervix often has no symptoms in its early stages. If you do have symptoms, the most common is unusual vaginal bleeding, which can occur after sex, in between periods or after the menopause.
Abnormal bleeding doesn’t mean that you definitely have cervical cancer, but it should be investigated by your GP as soon as possible. If your GP thinks you might have cervical cancer, you should be referred to see a specialist within two weeks.
What causes cervical cancer?
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus that can be passed on through any type of sexual contact with a man or a woman. There are more than 100 different types of HPV, many of which are harmless.
However, some types of HPV can cause abnormal changes to the cells of the cervix, which can eventually lead to cervical cancer. Two strains of the HPV virus (HPV 16 and HPV 18) are known to be responsible for 70% of all cases of cervical cancer. These types of HPV infection don’t have any symptoms, so many women won’t realise they have the infection.
However, it’s important to be aware that these infections are relatively common and most women who have them don’t develop cervical cancer. Using condoms during sex offers some protection against HPV, but it can’t always prevent infection, because the virus is also spread through skin-to-skin contact of the wider genital area.
Since 2008, a HPV vaccine has been routinely offered to girls aged 12 and 13.
The stage at which cervical cancer is diagnosed is an important factor in determining a woman’s outlook. The staging, given as a number from one to four, indicates how far the cancer has spread.
The chances of living for at least five years after being diagnosed with cervical cancer are:
- Stage 1 – 80-99%
- Stage 2 – 60-90%
- Stage 3 – 30-50%
- Stage 4 – 20%
Treating cervical cancer:-
If cervical cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, it’s usually possible to treat it using surgery. In some cases, it’s possible to leave the womb in place, but it may need to be removed. The surgical procedure used to remove the womb is called a hysterectomy.
Radiotherapy is an alternative to surgery for some women with early stage cervical cancer. In some cases, it’s used alongside surgery.
More advanced cases of cervical cancer are usually treated using a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Some of the treatments used can have significant and long-lasting side effects, including early menopause and infertility.
Many women with cervical cancer will have complications. These can arise as a direct result of the cancer or as a side effect of treatments such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery.
Complications associated with cervical cancer can range from the relatively minor, such as minor bleeding from the vagina or having to urinate frequently, to life-threatening, such as severe bleeding or kidney failure.