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Cervical Cancer: What It Is, How It's Caused & How It's Diagnosed

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

A type of cancer caused by abnormal growth of cells in the cervix, usually because of infection with HPV.

This article is pending medical review.


Written by Alessandra Papitto

Reviewed by Carolin Becker, Katarzyna Przybył, Sophie Oppelt

Edited by Juliëtte Gossens


Cervical cancer is a type of cancer caused by abnormal growth of cells in the cervix. The cervix is the lower end of the uterus that opens into the vagina. Most cervical cancers begin when somebody is infected with a virus, the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a very common infection and is spread mainly via sexual activity (1). You can read more about the HPV virus here.

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What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is the 4th most common type of cancer worldwide in women and people with a cervix, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2020, 84% of cases were found in people from countries with few resources (2). In those regions, cervical cancer was even the 2nd most common type of cancer in women. And in Africa and Central America, cervical cancer is the main cause of death related to cancer in women.

How old are most people who get cervical cancer?

Fortunately, cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers, thanks to an HPV vaccine and early detection with Pap tests and HPV tests (1). Unfortunately, these ways to prevent cervical cancer are not very accessible in the regions where cervical cancer causes the most deaths (2). Cervical cancer is caused by changes in the tissue of the cervix. This tissue is composed of two main cell types:

  • Flat squamous cells on the outside of the cervix (also known as the “ectocervix”, ecto = outside)

  • Column-shaped glandular cells on the inside of the cervix (also known as the “endocervix”, endo = inside)

Even though both types of cells can develop into cancer, squamous cells are much more likely to lead to cancer – it’s the cell type involved in about 75% of cervical cancers (2, 3). The border between these two cell types, also called “transformation zone”, is the area where cells of the cervix are most likely to develop into cancer (4).

The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) came up with a scoring system for cervical cancer, including 4 different stages. This was done to help standardize diagnosis and treatment (13, 14). Click below to see what these different stages mean.

Stages of cervical cancer

How does HPV cause cervical cancer?

Almost all cases of cervical cancer, except for a few rare types, are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). This is the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract (1, 5). HPV infection is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). It can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, or through contact of the skin with a mucosa (such as the lining of the vagina or the head of the penis). This most commonly involves the skin and mucosa of the genital area, but it could also spread through skin in other places (5, 6). There are more than 40 different types (strains) of the HPV virus that can infect the genital area, but not all of them can cause cancer (6). Many are not dangerous at all (benign) and can only cause warts on the skin. Types 16 and 18 are most associated with cervical cancer (1). You can read more about the different types of HPV here.

The response to HPV depends on our immune system. Usually, the immune system attacks virus particles to clear them out of the body. This is what happens in the majority (over 90%) of cases (1). But in some cases, the immune system can‘t get rid of the infection. The infection is then said to be chronic. If you were infected with a strain of HPV capable of causing cancer, this can cause damage to your cells, especially those in the transition zone of the cervix. Eventually, over the span of up to 20 years, this can lead to cervical cancer (1, 7). Importantly, if you’re infected with HIV as well, you can develop cancer due to HPV much quicker (1, 7). Having HPV could also increase your risk to become infected with HIV (5), so the relationship between HPV and HIV might go both ways.

Other forms of cancer are also caused by HPV, such as cancer of the penis, anus, vulva, throat and mouth (5, 7).

When an HPV virus particle infects a cell, it starts producing proteins that interact with regular proteins in the infected cell. These regular proteins normally function as cancer protection: they make sure the cell doesn’t grow too fast and doesn’t grow when it’s not supposed to. They also make sure that the cell repairs any damage to its DNA before it continues growing. If the cell can’t repair itself, these proteins make it die off via apoptosis. But the proteins produced by the HPV virus interfere with the functions of these normal cell proteins or stop them from working altogether. The cell can then start growing and dividing without restriction, even if its DNA is damaged. That leads to cancer (6).

What are risk factors for developing cervical cancer?

There are several factors that could contribute to the development of cervical cancer. Some of them are associated with getting an HPV infection, and some of them are related to developing the cancer itself (2, 7).

HPV-related risk factors

  • Having multiple partners

  • Starting having sex when you’re young

  • Having a sex partner who has a high risk of HPV infection (for example somebody who has had multiple sex partners or who has had STDs in the past)

  • Having a history of STDs, such as chlamydia or genital herpes

  • Having unprotected sex: using a condom makes passing on an HPV infection up to 70% less likely (8)

  • If you were young (under 20) when you had your first child

  • If you’ve had three or more children

  • If you’ve had cancer in the vulva or the vagina before

  • If you have a suppressed immune system (for example, if you have an HIV infection)

More about these risk factors

If your sex partners have had their penis circumcised, you may be at a lower risk of having an HPV infection. That’s because a circumcised person has a lower risk of becoming infected with HPV and a lower risk to pass an infection to somebody else (10).

Risk factors related to developing the cancer itself

  • Smoking cigarettes: this habit gives a higher risk of squamous cell cancer of the cervix (the most commonly involved cell type in cervical cancer)

  • Having a weakened immune system (for example, if you have an HIV infection or if you take medication that suppresses your immune system)

  • Long term use of oral contraceptives (the birth control pill): some evidence (2, 11, 12) suggests that people who have used oral contraceptives for longer than 5 years may be at higher risk of cervical cancer. That’s because the estrogen in the pills is thought to help the HPV virus infect cells in the cervix.

  • If you have a family history of cervical cancer (which means your genes might make you more likely to develop cervical cancer, though there is little evidence of genes that may be involved)

  • If you are less wealthy or live in a region with fewer healthcare resources: that’s because your access to healthcare may be restricted in some way, which means your cancer might not be detected in its early stages and your access to HPV prevention (including birth control and HPV screening services) may also be lower.

What are symptoms of cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer in its early stages is usually hard to detect unless you participate in a screening program. That’s because there are typically no symptoms of cervical cancer until it’s in its later stages (see section Stages of cervical cancer). Usually, symptoms occur when the cancer grows into nearby tissues (2, 15). The most common symptoms are:

  • Abnormal bleeding from the vagina

  • Heavier periods

  • Pain during sex or bleeding after sex

  • Your vaginal discharge having a strong odor

  • Your vaginal discharge having a different consistency

  • Being fatigued

  • Losing weight when you didn’t mean to

  • A persistent backache or pain in your legs or pelvis

  • Peeing is painful or you have blood in your urine

How is cervical cancer diagnosed?

There are several steps to getting diagnosed with cervical cancer.

1. First, your doctor listens carefully to any symptoms you’re having. We’ve listed some common symptoms above. They will also ask questions about any type of cancer you’ve had in the past, and cancer your family members have had. If you’ve gotten screened for cervical cancer before, your doctor will also take note of those results.

2. After asking you questions, your doctor will probably want to do a physical examination. The most important examination is the pelvic examination. During a pelvic exam (also known as a gynecological exam), you’ll be sitting in a chair or lying on an examination table with your feet up and your legs spread. You will have to undress your lower body, so your doctor can inspect your vulva, vagina, and cervix. They will probably use a speculum to look at your cervix and the walls of your vagina. Use of a speculum can be a bit uncomfortable, because it’s often cold and it (temporarily) stretches out your vaginal walls.

3. During this bit, your doctor might want to take a biopsy of any abnormal tissue they’re seeing (2). Just because it looks abnormal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cancer – it could be a sexually transmitted disease, a different infection, or something benign (growth that isn’t cancerous).

4. If they don’t see anything but suspect there might be cancer based on your symptoms or any screening results, your doctor might want to perform a colposcopy (16). To do a colposcopy, your doctor will use a microscope (called a colposcope) to magnify your cervix. Any abnormal tissue that they couldn’t see with the naked eye, they might be able to see with the microscope. If they see anything, they can take a biopsy of tissue in that area.

It’s good to know that a biopsy of the cervix might be painful, but it’s not common to inject something numbing in the area because that’s about just as painful. If your doctor performed a biopsy, they will send this tissue to a lab so its characteristics can be inspected. This is necessary to make a definitive diagnosis.

Are there any risks to doing a biopsy?

5. Your doctor may also want to use their fingers to feel inside the vagina. This is called the bimanual examination. During this bit, they can test if any movements of your cervix inside your vagina are painful. They can also feel for your uterus and ovaries with the fingers of one hand inside the vagina and the other hand on your belly. In some cases, your doctor might also want to perform a rectal exam, during which they insert a finger inside your anus. That’s because the vagina and the rectum (the last bit of bowel before your anus) are right next to each other, so it could give your doctor more information about anything abnormal they might have seen or felt during the rest of the examination.

6. Lastly, it’s likely your doctor will feel for any enlarged lymph nodes in your groin (in the folds between your upper legs and your pubic area).

It’s completely normal to feel nervous or anxious about this examination. Especially for those who have experienced sexual trauma in the past, allowing somebody to feel around in your genitals can be very uncomfortable. It’s important to let your doctor know beforehand how you’re feeling about it, so they can help guide you through the process. It might also be possible to request that you’re examined by a female doctor, depending on how things work in your hospital or clinic. Asking never hurts!

Can cervical cancer be prevented?

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers due to the development of screening tests, such as the Pap test and the HPV DNA test (1, 8). This way, abnormal cells can be detected and treated early, before they develop into cancer.

During a Pap test, your doctor takes a few cells from your cervix using a small brush. The test is done during a pelvic examination, which we’ve described earlier. These cells are then sent to a lab and examined under a microscope. If they show changes, your doctor can take biopsy of your cervix to make sure there’s no cancer. For an HPV test, your doctor also collects a small sample, in the same way as for a Pap test. The sample is then tested to see if they’re infected with HPV. If they are, a Pap test can be done. It’s important to keep in mind that these screening tests don’t give a diagnosis. To diagnose cervical cancer, you need a biopsy.

Lastly, but importantly, there is a vaccine for HPV. If you get vaccinated early, you’re much less likely to catch an HPV infection, and you’re also less likely to transmit it to somebody else.

You can read more about the Pap test and the HPV test here. You can read about the vaccine in more detail here.

Depending on where you live, your country may have a national screening program that automatically invites those who should get screened. In other countries, you have to take the initiative to contact your doctor yourself.

Importantly, if your country sends invites, make sure to check whether you’ll be included automatically if you have a cervix but aren’t registered as female with your government. You might also receive invites if you’re registered as female but don’t have a cervix (anymore). In that case, you might still need screening if you’ve had an abnormal test result in the past. Some countries keep track of these things, but others don’t. Contact your GP or primary care doctor to make sure things are in order for you.

Does my country have a screening program?

Screening programs for cervical cancer are well-developed mainly in high-resource countries (2). People in those countries typically also have more access to necessary medical treatment. That’s why women in countries with scarce resources die from cervical cancer much more commonly than women in wealthy countries, tragically (1). This is also true for underserved communities within wealthy countries. The global mortality from cervical cancer is therefore still high.

How can cervical cancer be treated?

Your treatment will depend on the stage your cancer is in: how big is it? Has is spread to other places? How far are those places from the cervix? We’ve explained the different stages of cervical cancer above. We’ve summarized the main treatment options for your below.

For very small tumors that haven’t grown into any other tissues (stage 1 cervical cancer), it’s often enough to remove a portion of the cervix. This is called conization. This tissue can then be used for biopsies (which confirms the diagnosis again), and the procedure treats the cervical cancer at the same time. Your surgeon can perform conization with either a scalpel (a cold knife), a laser, or through a loop heated with electrical current, called electrosurgical loop (17). An electrosurgical loop can cut tissue and stop bleeding at the same time (18).

In other cases, especially for more advanced cancer, different forms of treatment are needed. These options include:

  • Surgery

  • Radiation therapy (which uses radiation to kill cancer cells)

  • Chemotherapy (which uses chemicals to kill cancer cells)

  • Immunotherapy (which uses antibodies to kill cancer cells)

Your doctor will discuss all the options available to you. If you’re wondering about certain ways to treat cancer that they haven’t spoken to you about, there’s no harm in asking! What options would work for you depend on many different factors, most notably the extent of the cancer (8).


Getting screened for cervical cancer can be scary. But it’s your best bet to prevent having to get intensive treatment for cervical cancer. It can save your life!

We acknowledge that access to screening is limited in a lot of areas around the world. But we’re optimistic about efforts to increase access for every woman and every person with a cervix!



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  2. Frumovitz M. Invasive cervical cancer: Epidemiology, risk factors, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis. In: Goff B, Dizon DS, Chakrabarti A (eds.). UpToDate. 2023.

  3. Parra-Herran C. HPV associated adenocarcinoma (usual types and variants). [Accessed January 29th, 2023]

  4. Balasubramaniam SD, Balakrishnan V, Oon CE, Kaur G. Key Molecular Events in Cervical Cancer Development. Medicina. 2019;55(7):384. DOI: 10.3390/medicina55070384

  5. Palefsky JM. Human papillomavirus infections: Epidemiology and disease associations . In: Hirsch MS, Bogorodskaya M (eds.). UpToDate. 2022.

  6. Palefsky JM. Virology of human papillomavirus infections and the link to cancer. In: Dizon DS, Aboulafia DM, Bogorodskaya M (eds.). UpToDate. 2022.

  7. Cohen PA, Jhingran A, Oaknin A, Denny L. Cervical cancer. The Lancet. 2019;393(10167):169-82. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(18)32470-X

  8. Johnson CA, James D, Marzan A, Armaos M. Cervical Cancer: An Overview of Pathophysiology and Management. Seminars in Oncology Nursing. 2019;35(2):166-74. DOI: 10.1016/j.soncn.2019.02.003

  9. Shannon CL, Klausner JD. The Growing Epidemic of Sexually Transmitted Infections in Adolescents: A Neglected Population. Current Opinion in Pediatrics. 2018;30(1):137-143. DOI: 10.1097/MOP.0000000000000578

  10. Baskin LS. Neonatal circumcision: Risks and benefits. In: Lockwood CJ, Wilcox D, Eckler K (eds.). UpToDate. 2021.

  11. Gierisch JM, Coeytaux RR, Urrutia RP, Havrilesky LJ, Moorman PG, Lowery WJ et al. Oral Contraceptive Use and Risk of Breast, Cervical, Colorectal, and Endometrial Cancers: A Systematic Review. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. 2013;22(11):1931-1943. DOI: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-13-0298

  12. Gadducci A, Cosio S, Fruzzetti F. Estro-progestin Contraceptives and Risk of Cervical Cancer: A Debated Issue. Anticancer Research. 2020;40(11):5995-6002. DOI: 10.21873/anticanres.14620

  13. Singh N, Rous B, Ganesan R, Ganesan R, McCluggage G. 2018 FIGO Staging System for Cervical cancer: Summary and comparison with 2009 FIGO Staging System. [Accessed February 10th, 2023]

  14. Canadian Cancer Society. Stages of cervical cancer. Available from: [Accessed February 10th, 2023]

  15. Mishra GA, Pimple SA, Shastri SS. An overview of prevention and early detection of cervical cancers. Indian Journal of Medical and Paediatric Oncology. 2011;32(3):125-32. DOI: 10.4103/0971-5851.92808

  16. Feltmate CM, Feldman S. Colposcopy. In: Goff B, Chakrabarti A. (eds.). UpToDate. 2022.

  17. Nyirjesy I. Conization of Cervix. In: Talavera F, Huh WK (eds.). Medscape. 2019

  18. Alrajjal A, Pansare V, Choudhury MSR, Khan MYA, Shidham VB. Squamous intraepithelial lesions (SIL: LSIL, HSIL, ASCUS, ASC-H, LSIL-H) of Uterine Cervix and Bethesda System. CytoJournal. 2021;18:16. DOI: 10.25259/Cytojournal_24_2021

Please note: the information we provide to you here is for educational purposes only. If you’re experiencing any discomfort or have any complaints or questions about your health, please contact your doctor or other relevant health professional. We don’t provide medical advice.


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