Cervical cancer

There were 81 cases of cervical cancer diagnosed in Northern Ireland in 2015. While it is possible for women of all ages to develop cervical cancer, it most commonly occurs in women in their 30s or 40s. It is rare in women under 25.

Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are over 100 different types of HPV, and most of these are harmless. However, a small number of ‘high risk’ types of HPV are known to cause cancer. HPV is a very common infection which is spread by skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity.

There are no symptoms but it usually clears without the need for any treatment. However, in some women the virus persists and causes changes to the cells lining the cervix which may later develop into cancer. In Northern Ireland, a vaccine that protects against a number of the ‘high risk’ types of HPV is routinely offered to girls between the ages of 12 and 13. Studies have shown the HPV vaccine is very effective at stopping some cancers of the cervix from developing.

Signs and symptoms

You may have no symptoms at first when the tumour is small.

Common symptoms can include:

  • abnormal vaginal bleeding such as:
    • bleeding between normal periods;
    • bleeding after having sex;
    • any vaginal bleeding in women past the menopause.
  • vaginal discharge that smells unpleasant;
  • discomfort or pain during sex.

You should see your GP as soon as possible if you experience any unusual vaginal bleeding. 

Screening for cervical cancer

Early detection and treatment can prevent 7 out of 10 cases of cervical cancer. Regular cervical screening (often called a smear test) looks for early abnormal changes in the cells lining the cervix. These can then be treated before they even develop into cancer. In Northern Ireland, all women, aged 25-49 are invited to attend for a cervical screening test every three years. Women aged 50-64, are invited every five years. The screening test is the best way for women to protect themselves from developing cervical cancer in the future.

The following video shows what happens at your screening test and afterwards, it is also available in British sign languageIrish sign language and subtitled versions.

Find out more about the Northern Ireland Cervical Screening Programme.

Resources

There are a number of websites that provide information relating to cervical cancer, these include:

This is not an exhaustive list and other sources of support in Northern Ireland can also be accessed via Northern Ireland Cancer Network.

Publications