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Tests for cervical cancer

After cervical screening or having symptoms, you may have tests to find out whether you have cervical cancer. If you have already been diagnosed and had treatment, you may have tests to find out if the treatment has worked.

We hope the information on this page helps you feel prepared for the different tests you may have. If you need some extra support, remember that our support services are here for you too.

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On this page:

About tests for cervical cancer

You may be referred for different tests if your healthcare professional – usually your GP – wants to find out the cause of any symptoms or you have had an abnormal cervical screening result.

These tests will be used to find out:

  • whether you have cervical cancer
  • what type of cervical cancer it is
  • the stage of the cancer – how big it is and if it has spread 
  • the grade of the cancer – what the cells look like and how they might behave
  • if treatment for cervical cancer has worked.

The test results will help your healthcare team understand what treatment and support you need.

Read about grading and staging cervical cancer >

Tests for cervical cancer and COVID-19

We know that experiencing symptoms, getting an abnormal cervical screening result and being referred for tests is always worrying. You might feel even more worried at the moment because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you have suspected cervical cancer, it will still be treated as urgent and you will be seen as soon as possible. It may be that your GP or another healthcare professionals arranges a telephone or video appointment for you first, to help decide whether you need a face-to-face appointment or to be referred for further tests.

Your GP surgery and hospital will have safety measures in place to keep you and their staff as protected as possible. This might include:

  • healthcare professionals wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gowns and gloves.  
  • you wearing a face covering – unless you don’t have to (exemption)
  • following social distancing guidance, which means you won’t be able to bring anyone with you
  • follow-up appointments possibly being done over the phone or by video call.

Read more about COVID-19 and healthcare >

Colposcopy

Colposcopy is a test to take a close look at your cervix. You might be referred for a colposcopy if:

  • you have been for cervical screening and the results showed cell changes (abnormal cells)
  • your GP, practice nurse or another healthcare professional noticed changes in your cervix
  • you have had symptoms and your doctor wants to find out what is causing them.

You will meet a specialist doctor or nurse called a colposcopist, colposcopy nurse or nurse colposcopist. All of these healthcare professionals have had the same training.

During a colposcopy, they will look at the surface of your cervix. They will use a type of microscope called a colposcope which allows them to see if the cells look healthy. They might also take a small sample of cells and tissue (a biopsy) to be looked at under a microscope.

Read about having a colposcopy >

If you have cervical cell changes, these may be:

  • diagnosed and treated at the same appointment – this is sometimes called ‘see and treat’
  • treated at a separate appointment.

The treatments remove a small area of cells and tissue from your cervix, a bit like a biopsy. Those cells and tissue will be looked at under a microscope to confirm whether it is cervical cell changes or cervical cancer.

If your results show that you have cancer cells, you will need to have further tests that we talk about below.

Find out more treating cervical cell changes >

Biopsy 

A biopsy is where a health professional takes a small sample of cells and tissue from your cervix. This might be done at a colposcopy appointment or a separate appointment.

An expert called a pathologist or histopathologist will look at this sample under a microscope. They can see how the cells look compared to normal healthy cells.

They will be able to see:

  • if there are changes in the cells, but they are not cancer
  • if there are cancer cells present
  • the type of cervical cancer 
  • the grade of the cancer cells – which means how different they are to normal healthy cells. 

There are different types of biopsy:

A punch biopsy is when a small sample of tissue and cell is taken from your cervix. You usually have a few different samples taken from different areas of your cervix.

LLETZ removes a small area of tissue from the cervix. This is also a treatment for cervical cell changes and early stage cervical cancer. It is sometimes called a loop biopsy.

Read about LLETZ >

A cone biopsy removes a cone-shaped piece of tissue from the cervix. This is also a treatment for cervical cell changes and early stage cervical cancer.

Read about cone biopsy >

Scans

You will probably have scans if you are diagnosed with cervical cancer at stage 1A1 or higher. These allow your healthcare team to see the size and shape of the cervical cancer, as well as whether it has spread.  

An MRI scan shows very detailed images of what is going on inside the body. This helps your team to see exactly where any cancer is, as well as its size and shape. This means they can plan your treatment.

You will lie on a table, which will be moved slowly into the scanner. This is like being in a large tube. The MRI machine uses magnets to create an image on a screen. You won’t feel anything, but the scanner can be quite noisy. You will be given headphones with music playing to help distract you.

An MRI scan can take up to an hour. You will be asked not to move if possible, as this can make the images less accurate.

A CT scan is similar to an x-ray, but the images that appear on the screen are more detailed and in 3D. It shows soft tissues as well as bones.

You will lay on a table to have the scan. Some people describe the scanner as looking like a ‘doughnut’ or a ‘ring-shape’. The part of your body being scanned will be inside the ‘hole’ of the scanner.

A combination of a PET scan and a CT scan. A positron emission tomography (PET) is a type of scan that makes detailed 3D images of the inside of the body. A PET/CT scan can be used to see if the cervical cancer has spread to different parts of the body, including the lymph nodes. It uses a mildly radioactive drug so that cancer cells can be seen more easily. 

An x-ray gives an image of the inside of your body. A chest x-ray is done to make sure there is no cancer in your lungs. The risk of this happening is low, but it’s important that your healthcare team checks, so they can make sure you get the right treatment.

Pelvic examination

A pelvic examination will involve your healthcare professional looking and feeling for what is going on in your body. You will probably be offered a pelvic examination if:

  • you have symptoms of cervical cancer
  • cervical cancer has been diagnosed and you need further tests.

A pelvic examination is usually done by a trained:

  • GP or practice nurse – if you are having tests at your GP surgery
  • gynaecologist – a doctor who specialises in women’s health.

They will wear new, clean gloves for the examination. The examination lasts for a few minutes. A pelvic examination involves your healthcare professional:

  • pressing on your stomach to feel for anything unusual 
  • looking at the outside of your vagina for any changes, such as redness or swelling
  • feeling the inside of your vagina to check whether your womb or ovaries are tender or swollen 
  • looking at your cervix for any changes by using a speculum to gently open your vagina – they may also take a sample of cells from your cervix.

Your healthcare professional should explain each step before they do it, to make sure you are comfortable and consent to the examination. If you are uncomfortable or want to stop at any time, tell them.

If you have a pelvic examination in hospital, it might be done under general anaesthetic. This means you will be asleep. It allows your healthcare professional to check what is going on without causing you any discomfort. They might check your bladder and bowel at the same time. Your healthcare professional will be able to explain more about this and talk through your options. 

Blood tests 

You will have blood tests:

  • when you are diagnosed with cervical cancer
  • regularly throughout treatment.

Blood tests are used to check on your general health and your blood cell counts, including white and red blood cells.

Hysteroscopy

Hysteroscopy is pronounced his-ter-oss-co-pee. It looks inside your womb (uterus) using a type of narrow telescope with a light and camera at the end. Your healthcare professional will be able to see inside your womb on a screen.

Read about hysteroscopy on the NHS website >

A hysteroscopy may be used:

  • to investigate symptoms, such as vaginal bleeding that is unusual for you
  • if you and your healthcare team are considering a type of surgery called a trachelectomy.

Read about trachelectomy >

Waiting for test results

We know that waiting for test results can be very difficult, even if you have a good support system of loved ones and healthcare professionals around you.

How long is the wait for results?

Your healthcare team will know how long your test results will take to come back. You can ask them at the time of the test or call the hospital number to find out.

If you have a colposcopy to look for cervical cancer, you will usually get your results within 4 to 8 weeks. You can ask the healthcare professional who does your colposcopy for a more exact time.

If you have had other tests, your healthcare team will talk about your results at a multidisciplinary (MDT) meeting. These meetings usually happen once a week. After this, they will contact you to talk about the results and next steps.

Coping with the wait for results

There may be nothing that can completely distract you from the wait, but here are our  tips to make it easier.

It can be hard to make the first move to ask for help, but we all need some extra support at certain times in our life. This is one of those times. You may have a partner, friends and family you can talk openly with and who will understand that you need to be upset, vent, or just share a silence together.

Your healthcare team are also there to answer any questions or give you support. You don’t have to wait for your appointment – you should have the number for the hospital so you can check on results or, if you have already been diagnosed, the number for your CNS.

You may also benefit from expert support with your emotional wellbeing. A counsellor can help you process your feelings, as well as give you the tools to cope with the wait and any results.

Read about getting support with your mental health >

It doesn’t have to be something big – it could be a nice meal or takeaway, watching your favourite film, or having a phone or video catch up with friends or family. But having little treats planned can give you a focus in the future that isn’t about getting your test results.

If you don’t want to link an activity you usually enjoy with this time, think about something new that you could try instead.

Sometimes speaking with someone who has been through the same thing – or is going through it too – can help you feel less isolated. Our Forum is a welcoming community where you can give and get support, post about how you are feeling, or simply read through messages.

Join our Forum >

 

More information and support about tests for cervical cancer 

We know that having tests, as well as waiting for results, can be stressful and there can be a lot of information to take in. Your healthcare team, both at the hospital and at your GP surgery, are there to support you with any questions or worries you have. Remember that we are here for you too, whether you are waiting to have tests or for the results. Our trained volunteers can listen and help you understand what’s going on via our free Helpline on 0808 802 8000.

Check our Helpline opening hours >

 

Sometimes connecting with others who have gone through a similar experience can be helpful. Our online Forum lets our community give and get support. You can read through the messages or post your own – whichever feels most comfortable.

Join our Forum >

If you have general questions about cervical cancer, our panel of medical experts may be able to help. They can’t give you answers about your individual situation or health – it’s best to speak with your GP or healthcare team for that.

Use our Ask the Expert service >

Thank you to all the experts who checked the accuracy of this information, and the volunteers who shared their personal experience to help us develop it.

References

We write our information based on literature searches and expert review. For more information about the references we used, please contact [email protected]

Read more about how we research and write our information >

Getting diagnosed >

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Date last updated: 
03 Nov 2020
Date due for review: 
03 Nov 2023
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