Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer, or cancer of the cervix, affects the lower part (the neck) of the womb with around 100 women in Northern Ireland diagnosed each year. It is very important to attend for a cervical smear test when you are invited as early detection and treatment can prevent seven out of 10 cervical cancers.

What causes cervical cancer?

Almost all cases of cervical cancers are thought to be caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is spread during sexual intercourse.

The HPV vaccine is now offered to 12 and 13 year old girls to help protect them against cervical cancer during their lifetime.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of cervical cancer are not always obvious and it may not cause any symptoms at all until it has reached an advanced stage. This is why it is extremely important for you to have regular cervical smear tests.

If cervical cancer does cause symptoms, the most common is abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as between periods, or after sexual intercourse. If you no longer have periods, there may be new bleeding.

Other symptoms of cervical cancer may include:

  • smelly vaginal discharge
  • discomfort when having sex

Cervical cancer screening (smear test)

In Northern Ireland, there is a cervical screening programme. The aim of the programme is to prevent cervical cancer in women who do not have any symptoms of the disease. It does this by identifying and treating women with cervical abnormalities that could develop into cancer in the future if left untreated.

A cervical smear is a test to check the health of the cervix (the neck of the womb). A small sample of cells is taken from the cervix and sent to the laboratory for an examination.

For most women, the test result is normal. But for one in 10 the test shows changes in the cells. These changes can have many causes. Most of these changes will not lead to cervical cancer but need to be investigated.

All women in Northern Ireland aged between 25 and 49 years are offered a cervical smear every three years. Women aged between 50 and 64 are offered screening every five years. If you are not up to date with your smear test, it is important that you contact your GP surgery or family planning clinic.

Cervical screening: it's best to take the test (Public Health Agency website)
Cervical screening: your results explained (Public Health Agency website)
Cervical screening: the colposcopy examination (Public Health Agency website)

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