Pelvic examination and colposcopy for vaginal cancer

A pelvic examination and colposcopy are often the first tests you have when you go to see a specialist at the hospital. 

What is a pelvic examination and a colposcopy?

A pelvic examination is when a doctor or nurse examines your tummy (abdomen) and pelvis. Your pelvis is the area between your hip bones. The pelvis contains the pelvic organs, including the:

  • bladder
  • lower bowel
  • ovaries, fallopian tubes, womb, cervix, and the vagina (reproductive organs)

Your doctor usually does an internal examination as well. They use a speculum and colposcope to see around your vulva and inside your vagina.

A speculum is a device used to hold the vagina open during an internal examination. It allows the doctor to see the neck of the womb (cervix) clearly.

A colposcope is a large magnifying glass that they use to closely examine the vagina and cervix. It doesn't go inside you. But by looking through it, the nurse or doctor can see changes that may be too small to see with the naked eye. Your doctor will take a sample of tissue (biopsy) of any abnormal areas.

Some people find these examinations embarrassing and invasive. It can also be uncomfortable. Your doctor and nurse will do all they can to make you comfortable and put you at ease. 

Contact the number on the appointment letter beforehand if you think you are going to find these examinations difficult and upsetting. If the healthcare team knows how you feel, they can make sure you get the support you need and allow more time if necessary.

Where you have these tests

You usually have these tests in the outpatient clinic. They are usually the first tests you have when you go to the hospital.

Why you have these tests

These tests help your doctor work out what is causing your symptoms. Or you might have been referred because you’ve had an abnormal cervical screening result.

During the pelvic examination your doctor is feeling for anything that doesn't feel normal. And a colposcopy is a way of looking at the vulva, vagina and cervix more closely. If your doctor sees an obvious abnormality during the colposcopy, they may treat you there and then. Or they may wait until they have the biopsy results.

What happens?

Pelvic examination

You usually undress from the waist down. You have a sheet to cover the lower half of your body. You lie on your back on the couch. Let your nurse or doctor know if you cannot get into that position for any reason. They may be able to examine you while you are lying on your side with your knees drawn up.

The doctor puts two gloved fingers into your vagina. And at the same time, they press down on your tummy (abdomen) with their other hand. Afterwards they may also check your back passage (rectum). They feel for any lumps or changes in size or shape.

Colposcopy

To have the colposcopy, you undress from the waist down. Your nurse will give you a sheet to cover yourself.

You lie on your back on the couch with your knees bent. Your legs can rest on padded supports. Your nurse will help you to get in a comfortable position.

The doctor or specialist nurse gently puts in a speculum to open up your vagina. Then they look through the colposcope to see the inside of your vagina and cervix. They can take biopsies of any abnormal areas. They send these to the laboratory to be looked at. The examination takes about 20 minutes. 

The biopsy can sometimes be uncomfortable or a bit painful. Or you might have tummy cramps for a little while afterwards. 

Tell the person doing the colposcopy if you have any pain or discomfort, they will try to make you more comfortable.

Diagram of a Colposcopy

Examination under anaesthetic (EUA)

It may be too uncomfortable for some people to have an examination while they are awake. So in this situation, you may have a general anaesthetic. The doctor can examine the vulva, vagina and cervix without it being uncomfortable for you.

After your test

You will be able to go home as soon as the pelvic examination and colposcopy is over.

Getting your results

Before you leave the hospital make sure you know how you will get the results. They might ask you to go back to the hospital for an outpatient appointment to see the doctor. Or they might send the results in the post.

If you have any questions about colposcopy you can contact the Cancer Research UK information nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Possible risks

Colposcopy is a safe test. Your nurse or doctor will tell you who to contact if you have any problems after your test. They make sure the benefits of having a colposcopy outweigh any possible risks. The risks after having a biopsy during colposcopy include:

•    bleeding  
•    infection

You can have a colposcopy if you're pregnant. It is safe for you and your baby and will not affect the delivery. It won't affect your ability to get pregnant in the future either.

Last reviewed: 
03 Mar 2022
Next review due: 
03 Mar 2025
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    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer, 2019

  • Cancer and its Management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • Cancer of the vagina 
    T Adams and M Cuello

    International Journal of Gynaecology and Obstetrics,

    FIGO Cancer Report, 2018. Volume143, Issue S2, Pages 14-21

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