What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is when abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix grow in an uncontrolled way and eventually form a growth (tumour).
If not caught early cancer cells gradually grow into the surrounding tissues and may spread to other areas of the body.
The cervix is the lower part of the womb (uterus), also called the neck of the womb. The womb and the cervix are part of the female reproductive system.
The reproductive system is made up of the:
- womb (uterus), including the cervix
- fallopian tubes
The cervix is the opening to the vagina from the womb. It is a strong muscle.
The diagram shows the position of these organs in the body.
This video shows more detail about the female reproductive system.
The female reproductive system includes a number of parts. The ovaries hold the eggs which are released each month during child bearing age. They also produce sex hormones which control periods. The fallopian tubes connect the ovaries to the womb (also called the uterus).
When an egg is released it travels down the fallopian tube towards the womb. At this time, sperm from the male can pass into the fallopian tube where it may meet the egg and fertilise it. Fertilised eggs pass down the fallopian tube to the womb, which holds and protects the baby during pregnancy. The lining of the womb is called the endometrium. It thickens during the menstrual cycle ready for pregnancy. If you don’t become pregnant you have a period which is when the lining sheds.
The cervix is the lower part of the womb. It is the opening into the vagina. During a period or menstruation blood passes from the womb through the cervix and then to the vagina. The vagina also opens and expands during sexual intercourse and stretches during childbirth to allow a baby to come out.
On the outside of the body is the vulva. It is made up of two pairs of lips. Between these is the opening of the vagina. Above the vagina is the urethra: a short tube that carries urine from the bladder to outside of the body and above the urethra is the clitoris: a very sensitive area that gives sexual pleasure.
For more information about cancers that can start in the female reproductive system, go to cruk.org/cancer-types
Where cervical cancer starts
The cervix is covered with a layer of skin-like cells on its outer surface, called the ectocervix. Inside of the cervix, there are glandular cells that produce mucus. This is called the endocervix.
The skin-like cells of the ectocervix can become cancerous, leading to a squamous cell cervical cancer. This is the most common type of cervical cancer.
The glandular cells of the endocervix can also become cancerous, leading to an adenocarcinoma of the cervix.
The area where cervical cells are most likely to become cancerous is called the transformation zone. It is the area just around the opening of the cervix that leads on to the endocervical canal.
The endocervical canal is the narrow passageway that runs up from the cervix into the womb.
The transformation zone is the area that your doctor or nurse checks during cervical screening.
Cervical screening is not a test for cancer. It is a test to pick up abnormal cervical cells. If left untreated, the abnormal cells might develop into cancer.
Like all other areas of the body, there are lymph nodes around the womb and cervix. Lymph nodes (also called lymph glands) are part of the lymphatic system. They:
- help to protect the body against infections
- filter, drain and circulate the tissue fluid that bathes all body cells and tissues
Lymph nodes are also important in cancer. The tissue fluid that bathes the area containing the cancer, drains to the nearest lymph nodes. So if any cancer cells break away from the tumour, the first place they can go is to the nearest lymph nodes.
When you have surgery for cervical cancer, your surgeon usually takes out some lymph nodes. They send them to the laboratory to check for cancer cells.
How common is cervical cancer?
Around 3,200 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK each year. That’s nearly 9 cases diagnosed every day.
Who gets it?
Cervical cancer is most common in women in their early 30’s.
Trans men can also develop cervical cancer if they haven't had an operation to remove their womb and cervix (total hysterectomy).
The main cause of cervical cancer is long lasting (persistent) infection of certain types of the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a common virus, and in most cases your immune system clears the infection without any problems.