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 those that cause cervical cancer. 

Key points

  1. Together, screening and immunisation offer the most effective protection against cervical cancer.
  2. Regular cervical smear tests every three years are recommended for women, if they have ever been sexually active, from the age of 20 until they turn 70.
  3. Having regular cervical smears can reduce a woman’s risk of developing cervical cancer by 90 percent.
  4. HPV is thought to be the most common sexually transmitted infection – most sexually active people will get HPV at some stage in their lives. 
  5. A vaccination is available to protect women against common types of HPV that cause the majority of cervical cancer.

Causes

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're at higher risk of cervical cancer if you smoke, have many children, use birth control pills for a long time, or have HIV infection.

Symptoms

Cervical cancer may not cause any symptoms at first, which is why doctors encourage women 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 dischargevaginal
  • 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. 

Prevention

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.

Vaccination

A vaccine for girls and young women protects against the four types of HPV:

  • types 6 and 11, which cause around 90% of genital warts
  • types 16 and 18, which are linked to more than 70% of cases of cervical cancer.

In New Zealand, the HPV vaccine is available free to girls and young women up until their 20th birthday. 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.

The HPV vaccine is only able to prevent HPV infection; it does not treat the infection. For best protection girls need to be vaccinated before they are likely to be exposed to HPV, which means before they start having any sexual contact.

The vaccine does not protect against all HPV types; therefore, women who have been immunised must still continue to have smear tests.

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. Last reviewed: 01 Jun 2014