Cervical cancer is cancer that starts in the neck of the womb (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:
- womb, including the cervix
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.
Where it starts
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.