Health conditions

Cervical cancer

  • Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that develops in a woman's cervix.
  • In the early stages of cervical cancer, there are usually no signs or symptoms.
  • Regular (five-yearly) cervical screening is your best protection against cervical cancer.
What is the cervix?

The cervix is the neck of the uterus, or the opening of the womb. During childbirth the cervix dilates, or opens, to allow the baby to pass from the uterus into the vagina, or birth canal.

Illustration of the female reproductive system

What causes cervical cancer?

Nearly all cases of cervical cancer have been shown to be caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus in men and women and is passed through any type of any genital sexual contact. Most people do not know they have HPV and it is usually cleared by the body on its own within 1 to 2 years.

In a very small number of women the virus is not cleared and can make the cells of the cervix change from normal to abnormal.

In rare cases, when the virus is not cleared from the body, these abnormal cells develop into cervical cancer. This can take a long time, about 10 to 15 years.

Regular (five-yearly) cervical screening can find HPV and any abnormal cervical cell changes it may cause. This allows any abnormal cells to be monitored, and treated if needed, to prevent the possible development of cervical cancer.

Who is most at risk?

The biggest risk factor for cervical cancer is not having regular cervical screening.

Four out of every five women who develop cervical cancer in Australia have either never had cervical screening, or do not screen regularly.

What are the signs and symptoms?

In the early stages of cervical cancer there are often no signs or symptoms.

Some people may experience:

  • vaginal bleeding after sex
  • bleeding between periods
  • vaginal bleeding after menopause
  • unusual vaginal discharge
  • continual pain during sex.

See your healthcare provider immediately if at any age you have symptoms.

How is it treated?

If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer you will be referred to a specialist who will oversee your treatment.

Treatment for cervical cancer is based on your individual situation and usually includes a combination treatment of:

  • surgery and/or
  • radiation and/or
  • chemotherapy.

Your specialist will discuss these options with you.

How can I protect against cervical cancer?

Your best protection again cervical cancer is the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine and regular cervical screening.

The current HPV vaccine protects against 9 types of HPV which cause around 90% of cervical cancer in women.

Since the vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV known to cause cervical cancer, HPV vaccinated women need to screen regularly.

HPV vaccine

  • The HPV vaccine is available to protect against some of the most common types of HPV.
  • The vaccine provides best protection when it is given to someone before sexual contact.

Cervical screening

  • All women and people with a cervix aged 25 to 74 years who have had any sexual contact should have a cervical screening test every 5 years.
  • Cervical screening is a simple test used to look for HPV infection.
  • Cervical screening is for women who are well without any unusual signs or symptoms. If you have any symptoms, such as abnormal bleeding or discharge, see your healthcare provider as soon as possible.
  • If you are unsure of when you are due to screen, please speak with your healthcare provider or contact the National Cancer Screening Register on 1800 627 701.

Where to get help

Last reviewed: 17-06-2022

WA Cervical Cancer Prevention Program

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.