Information and symptoms of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix.

Cancer most commonly begins in the area of the cervix called the transformation zone, but it may spread to tissues around the cervix, such as the vagina, or to other parts of the body, such as the lungs or liver.

On this page you will find information on:

Types of cervical cancer

The are two main types of cervical cancer which are named after the cells they start in:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma – The most common type of cervical cancer, accounting for 7 out of 10 cases.
  • Adenocarcinoma – A less common type, starts in the glandular cells of the cervix. Adenocarcinoma is more difficult to diagnose because it occurs higher up in the cervix and the abnormal glandular cells are harder to recognise.

How common is cervical cancer?

About 200 women in Queensland are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. Cervical cancer accounts for about 2 out of 100 of all cancers diagnosed in women.The incidence of cervical cancer in Australia has decreased significantly since a national screening programme was introduced in the 1990’s.

What are the risk factors?

Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by an infection called human papillomavirus. There are also other known risk factors:

  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV) –  is the name for a group of viruses. HPV is a common infection that affects the surface of different areas of the body, such as the cervix, vagina and skin.
  • Smoking and passive smoking – chemicals in tobacco can damage the cells of the cervix, making cancer more likely to develop in women with HPV.
  • Having a weakened immune system – the immune system helps rid the body of HPV. Women with a weakened immune system are at increased risk of developing cervical cancer. This includes women with the human deficiency virus (HIV) and women who take medicines that lower their immunity. Ask you doctor if this applies to you.
  • Long-term use of oral contraceptive (the pill) – research has shown that women who have taken the pill for five years or more are at increased risk of developing cervical cancer. However, the risk is small and the pill can also help protect against other types of cancer, such as uterine and ovarian cancers.
  • Exposure to Diethylstilboestrol (DES) – this is a synthetic form of the female hormone oestrogen. DES was prescribed to pregnant women from the 1940’s to the early 1970’s to prevent miscarriage. Studies have show that the daughters of women who took DES have a small but increased risk of developing a rare type of cervical adenocarcinoma.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

In the early stages, cervical cancer usually has no symptoms. The only way to know if there are abnormal cells in the cervix, which may develop into cervical cancer, is to have a cervical screening test.

If symptoms are present, they usually include:

  • Vaginal bleeding between periods, after menopause or during or after sexual intercourse
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • An unusual vaginal discharge
  • Heavier periods or periods that last longer than usual

These symptoms can also be caused by other conditions. See your general practitioner (GP) if you are worried or the symptoms are ongoing.

How is cervical cancer diagnosed?

Cancer Council recommends that all women or anyone with a cervix aged between 25 and 74 years participate in the National Cervical Screening Program.

If your screening test results suggest that you have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer, or you have symptoms of cancer, you will be referred to a specialist for tests to confirm the diagnosis of precancerous changes or cervical cancer.

Some tests allow your doctor to see the tissue in your cervix and surrounding areas more clearly. Other tests tell your doctor about your general health and whether the cancer has spread.

You may have some or all of the following tests:

  • Cervical Screening test – will detect cancer-causing HPV – the virus that cause cervical cancer.
  • Colposcopy – is a way of looking closely at the cervix to help see where abnormal or changed cells are and what they look like.
  • Biopsy – is when the doctor removes some tissue from the surface of the cervix and sends it to a laboratory for examination. A biopsy may be done during a colposcopy.
  • Large Loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ) – this is the most common way of removing cervical tissue for examination and treating precancerous changes to the cervix.
  • Cone Biopsy – is used when there are abnormal glandular cells in the cervix or when early-stage cancer is suspected.
  • Laser surgery – this procedure uses a laser beam in place of a knife to burn away the abnormal cells or remove pieces of tissue for further study.

Further tests:

  • Blood test – to check for your general health and how well your kidneys and liver are working.
  • Chest x-ray – to examine your lungs for cancer.
  • CT scan – uses x-rays to take pictures of the inside of your body.
  • MRI scan – uses a powerful magnet and radio waves to build up detailed cross-sectional pictures of the inside of your body.
  • PET Scan – injection with a glucose solution containing some radioactive material.
  • Examination under anaesthetic – doctor checks whether the cancer has spread by examining your cervix, vagina, uterus, bladder and rectum

Waiting for the test results can be a stressful time. It may help to talk to a friend or family member, a healthcare professional, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

What is the treatment of cervical cancer?

The most common treatment for cervical cancer is surgery and/or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. When cervical cancer has spread beyond the cervix, targeted therapy may also be used.

Your medical team will recommend treatment based on:

  • The results of your tests.
  • The location of the cancer and whether it has spread.
  • Your age and general health.
  • Whether you would like to have children in the future.

For more information on the treatment of cervical cancer please refer to the Understanding Cervical Cancer booklet.

What is the prognosis?

Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You may wish to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your doctor, but it is not possible for any doctor to predict the exact course of the disease.

In general, the earlier cervical cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better the outcome. Most early-stage cervical cancers have a good prognosis with high survival rates.

To work out your prognosis, your doctor will consider:

  • Your test results.
  • The type of cervical cancer you have.
  • The rate and depth of tumour growth.
  • Other factors such as your age, fitness and medical history.

Discussing your prognosis and thinking about the future can be challenging and stressful. It may help to talk with family and friends. You can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20 if you need more information or emotional support.

What support is available?

Whether you have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, or have a family member or friend who is affected by cancer, there are times when you may need support. Our professional services and support programs are here to help you.

Find out more about:

You don’t have to face cancer alone – we’re here to help.

For more information on cervical cancer please refer to the Understanding Cervical Cancer booklet. You can download a PDF or order a hard copy.