Cervical cancer refers to the growth of abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix that then develop into cancerous tumours. The cervix connects the uterus to the vagina in the female reproductive system.
Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV is a common virus that is spread by genital skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity. More than 100 types of HPV have been identified, and about a dozen of these are considered high risk because they can lead to cancer. It is so common that many people have it at some point in their lives and never know it as there are usually no symptoms.
Cervical cancer can be curable when detected early. The HPV vaccine (also known as the ‘cervical cancer vaccine’) can protect against several types of HPV, including types that cause cancer. There are many types of HPV and the body’s immune system will naturally clear most types within one to two years.
Cervical screening tests can help detect cervical cancer in the early stages. The Cervical Screening Test has replaced the two-yearly Pap test and is more accurate at detecting HPV. The Pap test used to look for cell changes in the cervix, whereas the new Cervical Screening Test looks for HPV which can lead to cell changes in the cervix.
Cervical cancer symptoms
Changes to cervical cells do not usually cause any symptoms – this is why regular Cervical Screening Tests are so important (recommended every 5 years), even if you have received the HPV vaccine. If cervical cell changes develop into cervical cancer, the most common symptoms include:
- Menstrual irregularities such as bleeding between periods, longer and heavier periods, and bleeding after menopause
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Bleeding and pain during/after sexual intercourse
- Excessive tiredness or fatigue
- Leg pain or swelling
- Lower back pain
While these are known symptoms of cervical cancer, they may also be indicative of other conditions and may not initially appear of concern. Our advice is to consult your doctor if you are experiencing unusual bleeding, discharge, pain or any of the above symptoms.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the predominant cause of cervical cancer. Of the 100 various types of HPVs, 15 are known to cause cervical cancer. While genital HPVs are common and harmless if treated quickly, prolonged infection can cause cells to mutate and lead to cervical cancer.
|Vaccination against harmful HPV strains, and frequent cervical screening tests are recommended to reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer. In Australia, The National Cervical Screening Program reduces illness and death from cervical cancer. Women aged 25 to 74 years of age are invited to have a cervical screening test every 5 years.|
Other environmental risk factors include:
- Smoking – chemicals in tobacco may damage the cells of the cervix and lead to cell abnormalities.
- Long-term usage of contraceptive pills – taking oral contraceptives for more than five years may increase the risk of cervical cancer in women who also have HPV.
- Previous cancer – women who have been diagnosed with cervical cancer in the past are at higher risk of developing cervical cancer again.
- Having many children – women with HPV infection who have given birth to five or more children may have a heightened risk of developing cervical cancer.
- Exposure to diethylstilboestrol (DES) – DES is a synthetic form of oestrogen used to prevent miscarriages in the early 1940s-50s. Children exposed to DES in the womb are more likely to develop cervical cancer as adults.
About cervical cancer research
WomenCan funds the Australian New Zealand Gynaecological Oncology Group (ANZGOG), a cervical cancer foundation conducting clinical trials across over 50 hospitals in Australia and New Zealand. ANZGOG's trials aim to find the most effective treatment methods for cervical cancer and other gynaecological cancers.
Cervical cancer statistics
- HPV causes 90% of cervical cancers
- Cervical cancer mainly occurs in women over the age of 35
- Approximately 913 Australian women and 380 New Zealand women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year
- The five-year survival rate of cervical cancer is 74%
"Support gynaecological research, it can help save someone you love."
Dr G. Raj Mohan, ANZGOG member
Donate to fund Cervical Cancer
Help change the lives of patients with cervical cancer by making a donation through WomenCan.