Cervical Cancer: Clear Answers to Common Questions

If you or a loved one have been recently diagnosed with cervical cancer, or may be at risk for developing it, now is the time to learn more about this condition. Cervical cancer can be intimidating and even scary; however, understanding more about it’s causes, treatments, and what to expect can help provide some peace of mind in a trying situation. In this blog post we answer some of the most common questions related to cervical cancer—from the basics such as “what is cervical cancer?” all the way up through diagnosis and treatment options. Knowing how your medical team plans on confronting your cancer will give you greater control over your remission journey.

What is Cervical Cancer? 

Cervical cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix. The cervix is part of the female reproductive system. It is the lowest section of the uterus, connecting to the vagina. The cervix lining is made up of 2 kinds of cells: squamous and glandular. Where these meet is called the squamocolumnar junction or transformation zone. This is where cervical cancer starts. 

HPV and cervical cancer – how are they related?

Almost all cervical cancer cases (99%) are associated with infection of the high-risk human papillomaviruses (HPV). This is an extremely common virus that is transmitted through sexual contact. Many women often won’t see symptoms for HPV, however if the immune system has not cleared the virus, it can cause changes in the cells resulting in cervical cancer. 

The HPV vaccine protects against several types of HPV, as well as the types which can cause cancer. It has been given to girls between the ages of 12-13 since 2007 and is one of the most effective ways of reducing cervical cancer risk. The roll out of the vaccine which was seed-funded by ACRF has resulted in a 93% drop in genital wart diagnosis (symptoms of HPV) in young women who have received the HPV vaccine since 2007. 

What causes cervical cancer?

Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by persistent HPV infection. The other main risk factor for cervical cancer is smoking, as chemicals in tobacco can damage the cells in the cervix that can make cancer more likely to develop. 

There is some evidence that women who have taken the contraceptive pill for five years or more have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer in people with HPV. However, the risk is small and decreases quickly if you stop using the pill.

Other risk factors include: 

  • Age (most cervical cancer develops after 35 years of age and before 60) 
  • A weakened immune system 
  • Lack of regular cervical screening 

Screening for cervical cancer – what does it entail?

The Cervical Screening Test is a simple procedure to check the health of your cervix. The Cervical Screening Test looks for HPV which can lead to cell changes in the cervix. These changes rarely cause any symptoms at early stages, and therefore can only be detected through screening. If you have a cervix and you are between 25 and 74 years old, and you have ever been sexually active, you should have a Cervical Screening Test every five years. 

The National Cervical Cancer Screening Program has changed. Since 1 December 2017, the Pap smear test has been replaced with a new Cervical Screening Test, but this will look and feel the same as the Pap smear test. Your doctor or nurse will use a device called a speculum to open the vagina. They will use a small brush or spatula to collect some cells from the cervix. This may feel slightly uncomfortable, but it usually only takes a few minutes. 

The cells are then sent to a laboratory and tested for HPV. 

How common is cervical cancer in Australia?

Australia has one of the lowest incidences of cervical cancer in the world, largely due to the HPV vaccine and cervical screening programme. In 2022, it is estimated that 942 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in Australia meaning women have a 1 in 180 (or 0.56%) risk of being diagnosed with cervical cancer by the age of 85. This makes it the 11th most common cancer in women in Australia. 

Is cervical cancer hereditary? 

No, cervical cancer is not hereditary, so risk is not passed down from mother to daughter. The main factors that increase risk are HPV and smoking. 

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Small abnormalities rarely cause symptoms, so the only way to know if there are abnormal cells is through a cervical screening test. If early cell changes develop into cervical cancer, the most common signs include: 

  • Vaginal bleeding between periods 
  • Longer or heavier periods 
  • Pain during intercourse 
  • Bleeding after intercourse 
  • Pelvic pain 
  • A change in your vaginal discharge-more discharge or a strong/unusual colour/ smell 
  • Vaginal bleeding after menopause. 

What is the treatment for cervical cancer?

When diagnosed early, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable forms of cancer. With the HPV vaccine and efficient screening, cervical cancer has the potential to be eliminated as a public health problem. 

Treatment options for cervical cancer depend on: 

  • The type of cervical cancer 
  • The stage of the cancer 
  • If you want children 
  • Age

Very early stage abnormalities can be removed by surgery if they pose a risk of developing into cancer. Sometimes, a very small cancer may be discovered in the sample, and further treatment may be needed to ensure all abnormal cells are removed.  

In the later stages of cervical cancer, surgery can be used to remove tumours along with radiation therapy, chemotherapy or combination therapy/ chemoradiation (a combination of the two) to ensure all the cancer cells are destroyed.

Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy X-rays or other types of radiation to destroy cancer cells or stop them from growing.

Chemotherapy uses medicines to slow the growth of cancer cells, either by destroying the cells or stopping them from dividing. 

A combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy (called chemoradiation) is usually used to treat advanced cervical cancer. 

How can you reduce your risk of recurrence?

Regular screening is vital to catch the cancer at its early stages especially after treatment to ensure all abnormal cells have been removed. Other factors such as eliminating smoking are also beneficial.

Where can you learn more about cervical cancer?

You can learn more on the websites cited below as well as the Cancer Australia website. 

To learn more about the Cervical Screening Test, talk to your GP or gynaecologist, or see the information on the National Cervical Screening Program website

How can you support a loved one who has been diagnosed with cervical cancer?

Being diagnosed with cancer can leave you feeling overwhelmed, confused, anxious or upset  – these are all normal feelings. As family or friends it is very important to be supportive and assist your loved one where possible, letting them know you’re there to help them at home, going to appointments or just that you’re always there for them. 


World Health Organization

Cancer Australia