Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that develops in a woman's cervix. The cervix is the entrance to the womb from the vagina. Over the course of many years, the cells lining the surface of the cervix undergo a series of changes. In rare cases, these changed cells can become cancerous.
Normally, cells grow and multiply in an orderly way; however, damaged genes can cause them to behave abnormally.
They may grow into a lump called a 'tumour'. Tumours can be benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancer).
A malignant tumour is made up of cancer cells. If these cells are not treated, they may spread beyond their normal boundaries and into surrounding tissues, becoming invasive cancer.
The 2 main kinds of cervical cancer are named after the types of cell from which they originate:
- Squamous cell carcinoma — this is the most common type of cervical cancer, accounting for about 4 out of 5 of all cases. It starts in the skin-like squamous cells of the cervix.
- Adenocarcinoma — this is a less common type of cervical cancer, which develops from the glandular cells.
Abnormal bleeding doesn't mean that you have cervical cancer, but it's important to see your doctor immediately. If your doctor suspects you might have cervical cancer, you should be referred to see a specialist as soon as possible.
Cervical cancer is one of a few cancers where screening can detect pre-cancerous lesions.
Australia has recently introduced a new Cervical Screening Test to replace the old Pap test (sometimes referred to as a 'Pap smear'). This test is more accurate and needs to be done less often (every 5 years rather than every 2 years). All women aged 25 to 74 should have the Cervical Screening Test.
The National Cervical Screening Program (NCSP) recommends you have your first Cervical Screening Test 2 years after your last Pap test. After that, you will only need to have the test every 5 years if your results are normal.
For further information, visit the NCSP website at www.cancerscreening.gov.au; contact your doctor, health centre or family planning clinic; or phone 13 15 56 (for the cost of a local call).
Last reviewed: January 2018