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About cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is cancer that starts in the neck of the womb (the cervix). 

The cervix

The neck of the womb is called the cervix. The womb and the cervix are part of a woman's reproductive system. It is made up of the:

  • vagina
  • womb, including the cervix
  • ovaries

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.

Diagram showing the parts of the female reproductive system

Where it starts

Cell types

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. The glandular cells of the endocervix can also become cancerous, leading to an adenocarcinoma of the cervix.

Transformation zone

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.

Diagram showing the transformation zone on the cervix

Cervical screening

The transformation zone is the area that your doctor or nurse checks during cervical screening.

The vagina is the tube from the outside of the body to the entrance of the womb. The skin like cells that cover the cervix join the skin covering the inside of the vagina. So even if you have had your womb and cervix removed, you can still have screening samples taken from the top of the vagina.

Lymph nodes

Like all other areas of the body, there are lymph nodes around the womb and cervix. The nearest large group of lymph nodes are at the top of the leg (the groin area).

Lymph nodes or 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 and sends them to the laboratory to be checked for cancer cells.

Diagram of the lymph nodes in the pelvis

How common it is

Around 3,200 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK each year. About 2 out of every 100 cancers diagnosed in women (2%) are cervical cancers.

Cervical cancer is more common in younger women. More than half of the cervical cancer cases in the UK each year are diagnosed in women aged 45 or under.

Last reviewed: 
29 May 2014
  • Cervical Cancer: Current and Emerging Trends in Detection and Treatment ​
    H Hasan. The Rosen Publishing Group, January 2009

  • Cervical cancer 
    Martin-Hirsch P and Wood N. BMJ Clinical Evidence, July 2011. Vol. 818

  • Cervical cancer: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up

    Colombo others. Annals of Oncology, October 2012. Vol. 23, supplement 7

  • Principles and practice of oncology (9th edition)
    De Vita and others. Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

Information and help

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