Cervical cancer is a cancer of the cervix (the neck of the womb).
It happens when cells in the cervix become abnormal and change slowly over time. Abnormal cells are sometimes called pre-cancerous cells. They are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).
In most cases, it takes 10 to 15 years for these cells to go from normal to abnormal to cancer.
You can reduce your risk of cervical cancer by:
- having regular cervical screening tests to pick up any early cell changes
- quitting smoking
- getting the HPV vaccine at school - the vaccine is most effective in young people between 9 and 15 years old
- talking to your GP about any concerns or symptoms
Find out more about how to reduce your risk of cervical cancer
Who can get cervical cancer
If you have a cervix and have had any kind of sexual contact, you could get cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer mostly affects people aged 30 to 50 who have ever been sexually active.
Every year in Ireland about 300 people get cervical cancer. 90 women die from it.
In women aged 25 to 39 years, cervical cancer is the second most common cause of death due to cancer.
Cervical cancer is very rare in people under 25.
Cervical cancer does not run in families.
Cervical cancer often has no symptoms in its early stages.
The most common symptom as it develops is abnormal bleeding.
Abnormal bleeding can include:
- irregular vaginal bleeding
- bleeding between periods
- vaginal spotting or unusual discharge
- bleeding when you have gone through the menopause (post-menopausal bleeding)
- bleeding after sex
Less common symptoms as it develops can include:
- a pain in your pelvis (anywhere between your bellybutton and the tops of your thighs)
- pain during sex
These symptoms are usually caused by other conditions. They do not always mean you have cervical cancer. But you should contact your GP to get them checked.
Even if you have had a recent normal screening result, never ignore symptoms.
A cervical screening test checks the health of your cervix. The cervix is the opening to your womb from your vagina.
Attending regular cervical screening is one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer.
A cervical screening test used to be called a smear test. This was before Ireland changed to HPV cervical screening.
Anyone with a cervix between the age of 25 and 65 should go for regular cervical screening when it’s due.
What causes cervical cancer
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV is the name for a very common group of viruses. You can get HPV from any kind of physical or sexual contact of the genital area, not just penetrative sex.
Sexual contact includes:
- any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area
- vaginal, oral or anal sex
- sharing sex toys
Most people will have HPV at some time in their lives.
For most people, the virus goes away on its own and does not cause any harm. Your body's immune system can clear it within 18 months.
But in some cases, the HPV virus can remain and cause changes to cells in the cervix. Over time, these cells can develop into cancer.
This is why it is important to attend regular cervical screening when it is due.
Other risk factors include:
- having a weakened immune system
- if your birth mother took the hormonal drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant with you. Your GP can discuss these risks with you
You are still at risk of cervical cancer if you have had the HPV vaccine. The vaccine does not protect you from all types of HPV.
Treating cervical cancer
If you get a cervical cancer diagnosis early, it's usually possible to treat it using surgery.
In some cases, it's possible to leave the womb in place. But it may need to be removed. Surgery to remove the womb is called a hysterectomy.
Advanced cases of cervical cancer are usually treated using both chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Some treatments can have long-lasting side effects, including early menopause and infertility.
Some people treated for cervical cancer may develop long-term complications.
Complications can include:
- bleeding from the vagina
- pain during sex
- having to pee often
- kidney failure - complication from advanced-stage treatment