Cancer of the cervix (cervical cancer) occurs when the cells of the cervix change in a way that leads to abnormal growth and invasion of other tissues or organs of the body. The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus (womb) that forms a canal between the uterus and vagina.
The underlying cause of cervical cancer is thought to be a persistent infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is sexually transmitted. HPV infection is very common and while it usually comes and goes without any problems, in some women the virus stays in cells of the cervix. In a small number of women with persistent HPV infections, the virus causes pre-cancerous changes in the cells that may develop into cancer.
A Pap smear detects the early pre-cancerous changes in the cervical cells. These abnormalities are not cancer but they do indicate that the cells of the cervix may be growing in an unhealthy way. Depending on the degree of abnormality, treatment may simply involve monitoring. If the changes are more significant, the affected tissue may need to be removed or destroyed.
Treatment for cervical cancer includes surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy or a combination of these treatments. A number of vaccines against HPV are currently available. These will be used to immunise young girls against HPV infection.