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Macmillan's cancer information

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Blog Entry

Cervical cancer symptoms being overlooked

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Last week was Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, so we’ve written a blog to give you a run-through of symptoms and cervical screening.

After breast cancer, cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women aged 35 and under* Yet only a third of women would visit their doctor if they had symptoms of cervical cancer.**

We know that the earlier a cancer is found, the more likely it is that treatment will be successful. Most of the time, symptoms are caused by something other than cancer, but just in case, it’s really important to see your GP or nurse.

Things to look out for:

  • abnormal vaginal bleeding, usually between periods or after sex
  • new bleeding in women who’ve been through the menopause (don’t have periods any more)
  • vaginal discharge that smells
  • discomfort during sex

It can be embarrassing to talk about these symptoms, but getting them checked out can make a real difference.

Cervical screening (smear tests)

For most women, cervical screening can prevent cancer.

Cervical screening is a way of detecting early changes to cells of the cervix, which could go on to become cancer. Once identified, the abnormalities can be treated, preventing cancer.

Women aged 25+ in England and Northern Ireland, or 20+ in Scotland and Wales, should be invited for a test as part of the NHS screening programme. Although the test can be uncomfortable, it’s not painful and lasts less than five minutes.

Watch our video of Consultant Gynecological Surgeon Richard Smith explaining cervical screening.

The screening result

Most women who have a cervical screening test have a normal result. Some women’s tests will show that they have changes in the cells of their cervix, which is known as an abnormal result. Obviously this can be scary, but remember, it doesn’t mean you have cancer. It may mean you need further tests. These cell changes are normally not due to cancer.

Sometimes they are conditions that could develop into cancer, but these can normally be very successfully treated before this happens. Very few women with an abnormal test result have cancer of the cervix.

We have a free booklet about cervical screening, which explains more about the test and results. You can also get it as an audiobook.

HPV and cancer

Cell changes in the cervix are often associated with the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is transmitted by sexual intercourse. Contrary to popular belief, HPV is actually very common. There are over 100 types of HPV, and most people who are sexually active will have it at some time during their life. HPV is not cancer. For most people, infections come and go without causing any problems.

Only some types of the virus, known as high-risk types, may go on to cause cell changes in the cervix, which could develop into cervical cancer if not treated.

Cervical cancer

A cervical screening test can very occasionally detect early cervical cancer, but most women with an abnormal test result have early cell changes and not cancer.

Very few women with an abnormal test result have cancer of the cervix. If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, we have lots of information on our website about treatment and living with cervical cancer.

We also have a free booklet about cervical cancer, which covers diagnosis, treatment, side effects and living with cancer. It’s also available as an audiobook.

Benefits and limitations of cervical screening

Whether to have cervical screening should be your own decision, so we’re going to round off with some pros and cons, which we hope will help you decide what’s right for you.


  • It reduces the risk of developing cervical cancer.
  • The number of women who develop cervical cancer has halved since the 1980s due to most women regularly having cervical screening.
  • Cervical cancer is now an uncommon illness in the UK due to regular screening.
  • NHS cervical screening saves around 5,000 lives a year in England.


  • Cervical screening can show minor changes that may go back to normal on their own, but knowing they are there can be worrying.
  • Sometimes, too few cells are taken or the cells can’t be seen properly and the test will need to be done again.
  • Regular cervical screening can prevent cancers from developing, but it doesn’t prevent every case.
  • Cervical screening doesn’t pick up every abnormality of the cervix.
  • Some women find the test an unpleasant experience.

Remember, if you have any questions about cancer or screening, you can talk to our cancer support specialists or your GP.

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*Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.
**Report by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.
***NHS Cancer Screening. Cervical cancer screening.

  • Are your statistics accurate Abi? Melanoma must give cervical cancer a very very close run for second place in under 35 year old female cancer patients (and men for that matter, since melanoma doesn't discriminate).  What I find most disconcerting is that almost as many melanoma patients will die in any given year as are diagnosed with cervical cancer. When are you going to give melanoma the high profile it deserves? Marsha x
  • Dear Marsha, The statistics here have come from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, the UK’s dedicated charity for women with cervical cancer. They are accredited with the Information Standard, like Macmillan are, which ensures that they’re information goes through rigorous checking to make sure it’s up-to-date, accurate and evidence-based. I’ve just had a look at Cancer Research UK’s web pages for cervical cancer and melanoma, as they have lots of official cancer statistics. You’re right in saying that the numbers for diagnosis are similar in this group, with cervical cancer being only very slightly higher than melanoma. When you look at all ages and sexes though, melanoma is more common, and causes more deaths. We would never want to neglect anyone with regards to the information they need, no matter how common or uncommon their cancer is. What we wanted to achieve with this blog was to remind women of the benefits of cervical screening, because it has the potential to prevent so many more deaths. We’d be happy to write the next blog about melanoma. Perhaps we could highlight it as the second most common cancer in 25- to 49-year-olds, and as the most common cancer in 15- to 24-year-old women, before going on to explain the symptoms, what to look out for, and maybe debunking some common myths around melanoma. What do you think? Any ideas you have on what you think people need to be better informed about would be much appreciated. Many thanks for your comment, Abi
  • I'd like to see that Abi, people need to be made aware that it's not just skin cancer, it can't just be cut out, it's not only sun bed abusers that acquire it, we didn't bring it on ourselves and it is serious! Thanks! Marsha x