Jane Chalmers, Cancer Nurse, Cancer Care Team

The facts about cervical cancer


5 July 2023

Cervical cancer accounts for approximately 2% of all cancers diagnosed in women, with around 3,200 women in the UK per year being diagnosed. It's also the most common cancer in women under 351.

The good news is that 99.8% of cases are preventable, which highlights the importance of attending cervical screening when you’re invited to one.1

Jane Chalmers, Cancer Care nurse, picks out some key facts and frequently asked questions about cervical cancer that you need to know…

Be aware of HPV

99.7% of cervical cancers are caused by persistent high-risk HPV infections, which cause changes to the cervical cells.2

HPV is an extremely common virus, “8 in 10 of us get HPV at some point in their life”3. HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, which means that anyone who has ever been sexually active could be infected.

The body’s immune system will usually clear up HPV infections and generally most people don’t even know they have contracted the virus. Cervical cancer itself is not infectious.

>Find out more about HPV and cervical cancer here.

What about the HPV vaccine?

HPV vaccines provide protection against the two high risk strains of HPV (HPV 16 and 18), which cause 70% of all cervical cancers. A 2021 UK study, found that cervical cancer rates were reduced by almost 90% in women in their 20s in England, who were offered the vaccine aged 12-13.4

Although having the vaccine reduces your chances of getting cervical cancer, it doesn’t eliminate them.

Men who have sex with other men are also eligible to have this vaccination, they can source it through any sexual health clinic.

Since September 2019 boys aged 12-13 years old are now eligible to have the HPV vaccination through the school-based immunisation programme.

Smoking increases your chances of developing cervical cancer

It is believed that smoking impairs local immunity in the cervix meaning that HPV is more likely to cause the abnormal changes in cells that can result in the cancer developing.

>Read our article: 10 health benefits of stopping smoking

What about oral contraceptives?

Research suggests that women who have taken oral contraceptives for at least 5 years have a higher chance of getting cervical cancer, but the risk remains small, with one study stating 10%.5

Bear in mind that the pill can help protect you against womb and ovarian cancers. After ten years off the pill, your risk level returns to normal.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

  • Vaginal bleeding between periods and during or after sex could be a sign that something is wrong.
  • Pain during sex.
  • Changes in vaginal discharge is also worth paying attention to.
  • Pains in the lower back, pelvic area or lower tummy.

Although most women and people with a cervix with these symptoms will not have cervical cancer, it's important to see your doctor to rule out serious illness.

How is cervical cancer detected?

Cell samples are collected from the cervix during a smear test. You may be offered a smear test if you exhibit symptoms of cervical cancer, if you are over 25, or if your doctor sees something that concerns them during a pelvic examination.

Cervical screening: the key to prevention

There have been new changes implemented to the cervical screening programme. Previously the samples collected were tested to look for changes to the cells that could indicate cancer.

Now, the samples collected during cervical screening are tested for the HPV virus.

HPV testing is more accurate and reliable than the previous cell-testing method. If these ‘pre-cancerous’ cells are present, they can most often be treated with a straightforward procedure.

Not going for a cervical cancer screening is one of the biggest risk factors for developing it.

Our article on the importance of cervical screening provides more information on this topic, as well as why the screening process isn't nearly as unpleasant or uncomfortable as some people think.


  1. Cervical cancer statistics - Cancer Research UK
  2. Human papillomavirus is a necessary cause of invasive cancer worldwide – Europe PMC
  3. What is HPV? – Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust
  4. The HPV vaccine – Cancer Research UK
  5. Oral Contraceptives and Cancer Risk – National Cancer Institute