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About cervical cancer

Find out where cervical cancer starts and how common it is.

The cervix

The cervix is the lower part of the womb, also called the neck of the womb. The womb and the cervix are part of a woman's reproductive system.

The reproductive system 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

This video shows more detail about 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. This is the most common type of 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.

Cervical screening is not a test for cancer. It is a test to pick up abnormal cervical cells. If left untreated, the abnormal cells might develop into cancer.

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 (also called 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. They send them to the laboratory to check 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. That’s nearly 9 cases diagnosed every day.

Who gets it

Cervical cancer is more common in younger women.

Trans men can also develop cervical cancer if they haven't had a hysterectomy.

The main cause of cervical cancer is long lasting (persistent) infection of certain types of the human papilloma virus (HPV). 

HPV is a common virus, and in most cases your immune system clears the infection without any problems.

Last reviewed: 
24 May 2017
  • Cancer Incidence from Cancer Intelligence Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK  (2014 - 2016 UK average) 
    Accessed July 2019

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition)
    VT DeVita , TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015

  • Cervical cancer: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up
    N Colombo and others 
    Annals of Oncology, 2012. Volume 23, Supplement 7

  • Cervical cancer 
    PL Martin-Hirsch and NJ Wood
    BMJ Clinical Evidence, 2011. Volume 2011, Issue 0818

  • Moore Essential Clinical Anatomy (5th edition)
    KL Moore, AMR Agur and AF Dalley
    Wolters Kluwer, 2015

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