Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is cancer that forms in a woman's cervix, the lower part of the uterus, sometimes known as the neck of the womb.

Cervical cancer is caused by several types of a virus called human papilloma virus (HPV). There is now a vaccination which can protect against certain types of HPV, including most of those that cause cervical cancer. 

Key points

  1. Together, screening and immunisation offer the most effective protection against cervical cancer.
  2. Cervical cancer can be cured if identified and treated early.
  3. New Zealand has a very effective programme for cervical screening and this has reduced the rate of cervical cancer by 60% since 1990.
  4. It is still usually possible to become pregnant after treatment for cervical cancer if the cancer is caught early enough.   

What causes cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is caused by several types of a virus called human papilloma virus (HPV). The virus spreads through sexual contact. Most HPV infections clear by themselves, but some high-risk types can cause cell changes on the cervix that may lead to cervical cancer 10 to 20 years after infection. Other types can cause genital warts, but these do not lead to cancer.

You are at higher risk of cervical cancer if you smoke, have many children, use birth control pills for a long time, or have a lowered immune system such as from HIV infection or some medications.

How can cervical cancer be prevented?

The best way of protecting yourself against developing cervical cancer is by having regular cervical smear tests and being vaccinated against HPV.

Cervical smear tests

It usually takes several years for normal cells in the cervix to turn into cancer cells. Your health care provider can find abnormal cells by doing a cervical smear and having the cells examined under a microscope. By getting regular cervical smear tests and pelvic exams you can find and treat changing cells before they turn into cancer. Read more about cervical smear tests.

Vaccination

A vaccine, called HPV vaccine (also called Gardasil®) protects against most types of HPV virus that cause cancer. This is already reducing the number of women developing cervical cancer. However, this vaccine does not yet protect against all HPV types; therefore, women who have been immunised must still continue to have smear tests. 

In New Zealand, the HPV vaccine is available free to girls and young women 9 to 26 years of age. Women of any age can still have the vaccination by visiting their family doctor and discussing whether it would be of benefit to them and how much it will cost. Read more about the HPV vaccine.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer may not cause any symptoms at first, which is why women are encouraged to have regular cervical smear tests. Cervical smears look for early changes happening at a cellular level that can indicate that cancer is developing.

If early cell changes develop into cervical cancer, the most common signs include:

  • vaginal bleeding between periods
  • bleeding after sexual intercourse
  • pain during sexual intercourse
  • unusual vaginal discharge
  • vaginal bleeding after menopause
  • excessive tiredness
  • leg pain or swelling
  • low back pain.

All these symptoms are common to many conditions and may not mean you have cervical cancer. However, if you have these symptoms, have them checked by your doctor. 

How is cervical cancer diagnosed?

Cervical smear tests

Most women with cervical cancer are identified by having a smear test. These women usually have very early cervical cancer which is easier to treat and less likely to cause long-term problems. 

A smear test takes some of the cells from the surface of the cervix and looks at them under a microscope. Cancer cells look different to normal cells. This does not mean there is a cancer present, just that the cells have become abnormal. For a cancer to be present these cells must start to grow into the cervix and to see this a small piece of cervical tissue needs to be taken to look under the microscope. This is called a cervical biopsy.

Colposcopy

A colposcopy is like a smear test but the doctor will look at the cervix carefully and if necessary take a biopsy of any areas that look abnormal. These biopsies will tell if there is cervical cancer or not.

LLETZ

A LLETZ is a procedure which removes the abnormal cells from the cervix. The small pieces of tissues removed are sent to the laboratory to test for cancer.

Further testing

If the results of the tests above suggest that cervical cancer may be present, and there's a risk that the cancer may have spread, then further tests are needed to assess how widespread the cancer is. This makes it possible to plan the best treatment. The most common investigations for cervical cancer are:

  • MRI scan — this the best way of seeing how far the main part of the cancer has spread through the cervix and how close it is to the bladder and the bowel.
  • CT scan — this scan is very good for looking at lymph nodes in the pelvis and the chest which is where the cancer is most likely to spread to first.
  • PET scan — this is a specialised scan that is used to identify small amounts of tumour.

Stages of cervical cancer

All cancers are classified by how far they have progressed or the stage that the cancer has reached. The higher the stage, the further the cancer has spread. The staging for cervical cancer is as follows:

  • stage 0 (pre-cancer) – there are no cancerous cells in the cervix, but there are biological changes that could trigger cancer in the future
  • stage 1: the cancer is still contained inside the cervix
  • stage 2: the cancer has spread outside of the cervix into the surrounding tissue, but hasn't reached the tissues lining the pelvis (pelvic wall) or the lower part of the vagina
  • stage 3: the cancer has spread into the lower section of the vagina and/or into the pelvic wall
  • stage 4: the cancer has spread into the bowel, bladder or other organs, such as the lungs.

How is cervical cancer treated?

There are a few treatment options for cervical cancer, depending on how far the cancer has spread, age and what other health conditions a person has. 

Cone biopsy

A cone biopsy is an operation that removes a cone-shaped part of the cervix which has the cancer. This is only done when the cancer is very early and a woman wishes to have children in the future. Sometimes the whole cervix is removed. This is called a trachelectomy.

Hysterectomy

In most cases of cervical cancer, hysterectomy is the main form of treatment. This is an operation to remove the cervix and uterus and often the fallopian tubes and ovaries. If the cancer is very early this is all that is required. The lymph nodes near the cervix will be checked carefully and if these lymph nodes have cancer cells in them, the woman will also be treated with radiation therapy.
A radical hysterectomy is the name given to an operation where the tissue around the cervix and the lymph nodes in the pelvis are removed. This surgery can have complications such as infection and bleeding, but there is a good chance that the woman will be cured of her cancer.

Radiotherapy

Radiation treatment is very useful for women with cervical cancer. There are different types of radiation used.

  • Brachytherapy is used before surgery to decrease the size of the cancer and to increase the chances of surgery removing all the cancer. A type of radiation is used which only travels a very short distance so is used to treat the cancer cells in the main part of the cancer or the primary tumour.
  • External bean radiotherapy is used to treat a wider area, and is used to treat the cells which may have travelled into the lymphatic system or the metastases.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is being used to treat cervical cancer more often than before. Several drugs have been shown to be effective in killing cancer cells. Chemotherapy is sometimes used before surgery and sometimes after surgery.

Follow-up

Most women who have early stage cervical cancer will be cured, but the cancer can come back. Usually this happens within 5 years of treatment. In most cases, a patient will be seen every year to check for any signs that the cancer has reappeared. Although it is much more difficult to cure cervical cancer if it returns, it is still possible to delay its growth and improve a person’s quality of life. This is a difficult time for the woman and her whanau and all cancer units in New Zealand have special teams to help you through this.

What can I do to help myself and my family?

  • Don’t smoke, or quit smoking if you already do smoke.
  • If you are under the age of 26, you can be immunised to protect you from HPV infection. This decreases your chance of cervical cancer by 90%.
  • Have regular smear tests. If a woman has regular smear tests then the chance of getting cervical cancer is also decreased by 90%.
  • See your doctor if you have bleeding outside of your period for any reason, but especially after sex.

Support

Emotions & cancer Cancer Society of NZ, 2010
How we can help Cancer Society of NZ
Personal stories National Screening Unit NZ
NZ cancer services - find a hospital/service near you Healthpoint
More cancer support groups

Learn more

Cervical cancer Cancer Society (NZ)
What is cervical cancer? National Screening Unit (NZ)

Credits: Health Navigator Team. Reviewed By: Dr J Tuohy, Obstetrician & Researcher April 2017