What Is Cervical Cancer? The Complete Guide

Find out about the risk factors and symptoms of cervical cancer and when to get tested

Approximately 3,200 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the UK every year — that's nearly nine every day.

Thankfully, due to prevention and early detection, cervical cancer survival rates have increased in the last 50 years in the UK, with one in two people diagnosed now predicted to survive the disease for ten years or more.

In this guide, we discuss what cervical cancer is, what causes it, the symptoms to look out for and how to get tested.

What is cervical cancer?

The cervix is the lower part of the womb (uterus) and is part of the female reproductive system. It is sometimes called the neck of the womb.

Cervical cancer is a cancer that is found anywhere in the cervix. This type of cancer usually grows very slowly, and how serious it is depends on how much of the cervix is affected, if it has spread to other parts of your body and your general health level.

Cervical cancer is most common in women in their early 30s. Nearly all cervical cancer is caused by certain types of a common virus called human papillomavirus (HPV).

Cervical cancer symptoms

Early cervical cancers and precancerous cell changes usually cause no symptoms, and not everyone diagnosed with cervical cancer will experience symptoms either.

Nevertheless, knowing the symptoms of cervical cancer increases your chances of spotting signs of the disease. Getting a diagnosis and treatment at an earlier stage means that survival rates are much higher.

The symptoms of cervical cancer to look out for are:

  • Unusual bleeding — between periods, after sex, after menopause or periods that are heavier or longer than normal
  • Pain and discomfort during sex
  • Unpleasant-smelling, watery vaginal discharge that may also contain blood
  • Aches and pains in the pelvis

More general symptoms of cervical cancer include:

  • Extreme tiredness
  • Difficult or painful bowel movements and/or bleeding from the rectum
  • Painful or difficult urination or blood in the urine
  • A dull backache
  • Swollen legs and leg pain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Weight loss

If you have any of these symptoms, don’t be embarrassed — talk to your doctor straight away.

These symptoms can be caused by a number of health conditions, not just cervical cancer, so it’s important to see your doctor to get a diagnosis as soon as possible.

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There are 13 types of high-risk HPV that cause cervical cancer, Check4Cancer's test reports on the two most common high-risk sub-types HPV 16 and 18. Knowledge of HPV subtype results is useful not only from a risk point of view but if you wish to be vaccinated with the HPV vaccine and you fall outside the age range of the NHS programme for HPV vaccination. The HPV vaccine currently covers HPV sub-types 6,11,16,18,31,33,45,52, and 58.

What causes cervical cancer?

The main risk factor for cervical cancer, responsible for 99.7% of cases, is a persistent infection of the human papillomavirus (HPV).

You can be infected with HPV via any skin-to-skin contact with the genital area, through vaginal, anal or oral sex, or by sharing sex toys. HPV is very common — almost everyone who is sexually active will become infected with a type of HPV at some point in their life.

There are more than 100 types of the virus. Most types of HPV are harmless, but around 13 variants are considered high risk for cervical cancer. These variants can cause abnormal changes in the cells in the cervix, which can lead to the development of cervical cancer.

Although four in five people will be exposed to HPV at some point, in most cases, the infection will be cleared by the body’s immune system within two years. In cases where this doesn’t happen, and the body remains infected with a high-risk type of HPV for a long time, the risk of developing cervical cancer goes up.

As well as HPV, several risk factors may increase your chance of getting cervical cancer.

Sexual activity

People with a higher number of sexual partners are known to be at increased risk of HPV infection.

Practising safe sex by using condoms is very important in reducing sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) but does not wholly protect against HPV as the virus is present in the whole genital area. As a consequence, even individuals who practise safe sex are at risk of contracting HPV, so they should have regular cervical screenings.


The combination of smoking and having HPV is more likely to lead to cervical cancer. Women who smoke and have HPV are twice as likely to have precancerous cells in the cervix. Around 21% of cervical cancers in the UK are linked to smoking.

A weakened immune system

A weakened immune system can increase the risk of cervical cancer developing. Women with HIV or AIDS have been found to have a six-fold increased risk and people having undergone transplant surgery also have double the risk.

Family history

Women who have a first-degree relative (mother, sister or daughter) who has had cervical cancer have a higher risk of developing the disease. This link does not appear to be straightforward and is believed to be due to similar lifestyles or a shared immune response to the HPV virus.

Socio-economic status

Cancer Research UK states that the rates of cervical cancer in women in the most deprived areas of England and Wales are three times higher than those of women in the least deprived.

Having children

Women who have given birth to multiple children or gave birth before the age of 17 are at higher risk of cervical cancer than women who have never had children or had their first child after the age of 25. The reasons for this are not yet known.

Previous cancers

Your risk of developing cervical cancer is increased if you’ve been diagnosed with vaginal, vulva, kidney or bladder cancer in the past.

How is cervical cancer diagnosed?

In the UK, the NHS invites all women between the ages of 25 and 64 to have regular cervical screenings, also called smear tests. The best way to prevent and identify cervical cancer is to attend your screening every time you’re invited. You should also always contact your doctor if you experience any of the symptoms of cervical cancer as listed above.

Cervical screenings take a small sample of cells from the cervix to check for HPV. If any abnormal cells are detected, they can be treated before they turn into cancer. Cervical screening can also identify cervical cancer that has already developed.

Providing an easy and convenient alternative to traditional cervical screening, Check4Cancer’s HPV at-home test gives accurate and reliable results within five days.

If your test results come back positive for HPV, you’ll need to have further testing in the form of an up-to-date smear test +/- colposcopy. This procedure takes a closer look at the cervix and involves taking a biopsy (a small sample of tissue) from the cervix to check for cancer.

You can read more on our dedicated blog post on How Is Cervical Cancer Diagnosed?

Stages of cervical cancer

The stage of cervical cancer indicates how big it is and whether it has spread to other areas of your body. Knowing which stage you have helps your doctor create the most effective treatment plan for you and gives you some idea of your prognosis.

The stage of cervical cancer is determined by the results of a physical exam, biopsies and imaging.

The stages of cervical cancer are:

  • Stage 1 – The cancer cells are only within the cervix
  • Stage 2 – The cancer has spread from the cervix into the upper part of the vagina or the tissues surrounding the cervix
  • Stage 3 – The cancer has spread to the lower part of the vagina, into the pelvic wall or to nearby lymph nodes
  • Stage 4 – The cancer has spread into the nearby body organs such as the bladder or bowel, or has spread further in the body to areas such as the lungs, liver or bones

Cervical cancer treatment

Cervical cancer is often treatable.

The type of treatment needed for cervical cancer depends on the type, stage and size of the cancer, as well as your general health. Your doctor and specialists will devise a personalised plan for you, which may include one, or a combination of the following.

Surgery for cervical cancer

There are several types of surgery used to treat cervical cancer. These can include:

  • The removal of part of the cervix
  • Removal of the cervix and upper part of the vagina
  • Removal of the cervix and womb (hysterectomy)
  • Removal of the cervix, womb, ovaries and fallopian tubes, and all or parts of the bladder, bowel, vagina or rectum

If the cancer has spread to your lymph nodes you may also need to have these removed.

Chemotherapy for cervical cancer

Chemotherapy uses strong medications to kill cancer cells. It is often given alongside radiotherapy to shrink the cancer, after surgery to help stop the cancer from coming back or to treat advanced cancer that has come back or spread to other parts of your body.

Radiotherapy for cervical cancer

Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays of radiation to kill cancer cells. This type of treatment may be used if your cancer is large or has spread, after surgery to help stop the cancer from coming back or to help improve symptoms, like bleeding.

Targeted drug therapies for cervical cancer

Certain medications are used in the treatment of advanced cancer to help shrink it or stop it from getting any larger.

How to reduce your risk of cervical cancer

There are a number of things you can do that will help significantly reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer including:

  • Getting the HPV vaccination – those vaccinated at age 12-13 have an 87% reduction in their risk of developing cervical cancer
  • Attending regular cervical screening once you reach the age of 25
  • Stopping smoking – find out more about starting a smoking cessation programme with the NHS
  • Using condoms – although condoms don’t offer full protection from HPV, using them will help lower your chance of getting HPV
  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle – eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly can help support your immune system
  • Seeing your doctor as soon as possible if you notice any of the symptoms listed above

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Why should I get tested for cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is a very treatable disease if detected in its earliest stages. Importantly, the vast majority of abnormalities are detected in a pre-cancerous state.

The main way to prevent cervical cancer is by having HPV vaccination at age 12-13 and starting regular cervical screening from age 25 onwards. Research shows that detecting cervical cancer early has a significant impact on the long-term prognosis. This is why cancer screenings such as Check4Cancer’s HPVCheck are so important.

How can I get tested for cervical cancer?

We understand that women have shunned the NHS cervical cancer screening programme in the past due to fears of discomfort, embarrassment or time constraints.

Check4Cancer’s HPVCheck is a fast and more convenient way to test for the HPV virus in the privacy of your own home and reports on the two most common high-risk subtypes HPV 16 and 18.

Order a HPVCheck test kit today

Check4Cancer’s at-home HPVCheck is a convenient, non-invasive and reliable at-home sample collection kit that accurately detects the human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes cervical cancer.

Order your HPVCheck test today and receive your results within five days.

Find out more


Order your HPVCheck test today

Order your HPVCheck test today

HPVCheck is a comfortable and reliable at-home cervical cancer screening test that detects the Human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes cervical cancer.