What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is when abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix grow in an uncontrolled way and eventually form a growth (tumour).

If not caught early cancer cells gradually grow into the surrounding tissues and may spread to other areas of the body.

The cervix

The cervix is the lower part of the womb (uterus), also called the neck of the womb. The womb and the cervix are part of the female reproductive system.

The reproductive system is made up of the:

  • vulva
  • vagina
  • womb (uterus), including the cervix
  • fallopian tubes
  • 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 cervical cancer 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. 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 with para-aortic lymph nodes

How common is cervical cancer?

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 most common in women in their early 30’s.

Trans men can also develop cervical cancer if they haven't had an operation to remove their womb and cervix (total 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.

  • Cancer Incidence from Cancer Intelligence Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK  (2016 - 2018 UK average) 
    Accessed January 2022

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (11th edition)
    VT DeVita , TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2019

  • Cervical cancer: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up
    C Marth and others 
    Annals of Oncology, 2017. Volume 28, Supplement 4

  • 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

Last reviewed: 
27 Jan 2020

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