Cervical cancer affects the cervix – the entrance to the womb. Around 1,000 women die from cervical cancer in the UK each year. This cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus or HPV, which is spread from one person to another during sexual activity (not necessarily sexual intercourse). Both men and women can become infected with this virus. There are over 100 types of HPV but only 13 of these are known to cause cervical cancer and just two – types 16 and 18 – cause over 70% of the cases.
The virus gets into the surface cells of the cervix where it can stay for several years without causing any harm. Then, and for no apparent reason, it may start to cause damage to these cells. When a person has received the HPV vaccine, their immune system reacts quickly to stop the infection from HPV types 16 and 18. The purpose of cervical screening is to detect changes in the cervix which, if detected early enough, can be treated to prevent cancer developing. If they are left untreated, cancer can develop and may lead to serious illness and death.
In most people, the virus does not cause cancer but in some people it does. Women usually do not even know they have been infected because they have no symptoms.