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What is cervical cancer?

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Cervical cancer forms in the cells that line the cervix. The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the uterus (womb) which joins to the top end of the vagina. Cervical cancer may not have symptoms in its early stages, but it can be prevented through regular cervical screening (smear test) (a procedure in which a sample of cells are taken from the cervix and examined for abnormalities under a microscope or tested for high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV), depending on where in the UK you live).

Cervical cancer is not thought to be hereditary [1][2][3].

99.7% of cervical cancers are caused by persistent high-risk HPV infections, which cause changes to the cervical cells. HPV is an extremely common virus; around four out of five people (80%) will contract one type of the virus at some point during their lifetime. HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, which means that anyone who has ever been sexually active could be infected. The body’s immune system will usually clear up HPV infections and generally most people don’t even know they have contracted the virus.

Cervical abnormalities are caused by persistent infections with high-risk HPV. These abnormal cells, found through cervical screening (smear test), are not cancerous, but given time (often years) they may go on to develop into cancer. However, often the cells return to normal by themselves. Information from the UK NHS National Screening Programmes 2014–2015 showed that around 220,000 women a year (6–9% of women who attend cervical screening) will receive an abnormal result from their cervical screening [4][5][6][7].

The most effective method of preventing cervical cancer is through regular cervical screening, which allows detection of any early changes to the cells of the cervix. These changes are fully treatable, but if undetected and untreated they can lead to cervical cancer in a some women. For younger women the HPV vaccination can help prevent seven out of ten cases of cervical cancer (70%). This means that cervical cancer is largely preventable. If a woman does develop cervical cancer, survival and cure rates are high if the cancer is picked up early.


  1. Magnusson P et al, 1999. Genetic link to cervical tumours. Nature 400, 29–30.
  2. Walboomers JMM et al, 1999. Human papillomavirus is a necessary cause of invasive cancer worldwide. Journal of Pathology 189(1), 12–19.
  3. Bosch FX et al, 2002. The causal relation between human papillomavirus and cervical cancer. Journal of Clinical Pathology 55, 244–265.
  4. Health and Social Care Information Centre, 2015. Cervical Screening Programme, England: Statistics for 2014–15 V1.0. www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB18932/nhs-cervical-stat-eng-2014-15-rep.pdf. Accessed: 22.07.2016.
  5. Public Health Wales, 2015. Cervical Screening Wales Annual Statistical Report 2014–15. www.cervicalscreeningwales.wales.nhs.uk/opendoc/277093. Accessed: 22.07.2016.
  6. ISD Scotland, 2015. Scottish Cervical Screening Programme Statistics 2014–15. www.isdscotland.org/Health-Topics/Cancer/Publications/2015-09-01/2015-09-01-Cervical-Screening-Report.pdf?57983034850. Accessed: 22.07.2016.
  7. HSC Public Health Agency, 2015. Northern Ireland Cervical Screening Programme Laboratory returns 2014-2015. www.cancerscreening.hscni.net/pdf/FACTSHEET-2014-2015_LABORATORY_RATES.pdf. Accessed: 22.07.2016.


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Date last updated: 
22 Jul 2016
Date due for review: 
22 Jul 2019
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