Cervical cancer

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer develops in a woman's cervix (the entrance to the uterus from the vagina).

Its primary cause is the infection with high-risk human papilloma viruses (HPV).

Cervical cancer is caused by sexually acquired infection with certain types of human papilloma virus (HPV).

Although most infections with HPV resolve spontaneously and cause no symptoms, persistent infection can cause cervical cancer in women. Virtually all cervical cancer cases (99%) are linked to genital infection with HPV and it is the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract. HPV can also cause other types of anogenital cancer, head and neck cancers, and genital warts in both men and women. HPV infections are transmitted through sexual contact.

The HPV vaccine and the screening and treatment of precancerous lesions can prevent cervical cancer.


Signs and symptoms

What are the signs and symptoms of cervical cancer?

If left untreated, precancerous lesions may progress to cervical cancer, but this progression usually takes 10-20 years.


Symptoms of early-stage cervical cancer may include:

irregular bleeding (e.g., between periods or after sexual intercourse);

postmenopausal spotting or bleeding;

increased vaginal discharge, sometimes foul-smelling;

More severe symptoms may arise at advanced stages.

Abnormal bleeding doesn't mean you have cervical cancer, but you should see your doctor as soon as possible to get it checked.


Human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccination

There are currently vaccines that protect against common cancer-causing types of human papilloma virus and can significantly reduce the risk of cervical cancer.

The vaccine against the human papilloma virus (HPV) is effective and safe. It protects against infection from HPV, which causes cervical cancer.

Immunising against HPV 16 and 18 can prevent most cervical cancer cases. It works, and it saves lives. WHO recommends vaccination for girls aged 9-13 years as this is the most cost-effective public health measure against cervical cancer.

HPV vaccination does not replace cervical cancer screening (previously known as a “smear test”).

In countries where HPV vaccine is introduced, screening programmes for women at age 30-49 years may still need to be developed or strengthened.

Check out these Questions and Answers and informative videos about the HPV vaccination and how safe it is.


Screening and treatment of precancerous lesions

All adult women should undergo periodic cervical cancer screening to detect lesions in the cervix that, if left untreated, can develop into cervical cancer.

Screening aims to detect precancerous changes, which, if not treated, may lead to cancer.

Cervical screening is a method of detecting high-risk human papilloma virus infection. The cervix is the entrance to the uterus from the vagina. During some screenings, a small sample of cells is taken from the cervix and checked under a microscope for abnormalities.

An abnormal cervical screening test result does not mean you have cancer. Most abnormal results are due to signs of HPV, the presence of treatable precancerous cells, or both, rather than cancer itself.

Detecting and removing precancerous lesions can prevent cervical cancer.

Women who are found to have abnormalities on screening need follow-up, diagnosis and treatment, to prevent the development of cancer or to treat cancer at an early stage.

Contact your doctor to arrange a cervical screening.


Treatment | Management of invasive cervical cancer

Cervical cancers detected in early stages have a high potential to be cured. Cancers diagnosed in late stages can also be controlled with appropriate treatment and palliative care.

If cervical cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, surgery and/or radiotherapy are the primary treatment options.

More advanced cases of cervical cancer are usually treated using a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

For metastatic cancer, palliative care should be provided as well as psychological support.


For Healthcare Professional:

The efforts to prevent and control cervical cancer are everyone's responsibility, but the health care workers have an essential role, both in the implementation of immunization, screening and treatment services, as well as in the promotion of these services among women and the entire community.

The first step to communicate is to have accurate and adequate information. This Blog from WHO resources offers health professionals, especially primary care teams, a series of resources to stay informed and up-to-date on the strategies available for the establishment of successful programs of HPV vaccination and screening and treatment of precancerous lesions.