About Cervical Cancer

In this section you can find out more about:

This will help to give you a better understanding of the disease. Remember, if you want to know more or you have further questions, note them down and speak to your medical professional.

What is Cervical Cancer?

The cervix sits where the uterus or womb meets the vagina. Cervical cancer means the cells in the cervix have grown in an out-of-control fashion and formed a tumour.


Cervical cancer develops slowly. The cells move through a series of changes that eventually lead to cancer. The pre-cancerous changes in cells can be detected during a cervical smear (sometimes called a “pap smear”).

Sometimes these pre-cancerous cells will turn back into normal cells, but sometimes they’ll change into cancer. This is why it’s so important for all abnormal smear results to be followed up.

Regular cervical smears are recommended for all New Zealand women aged 20 to 70.1

There are two main types of cervical cancer:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma: This is the most common type of cervical cancer and develops in the flat cells that cover the outer surface of the cervix at the top of the vagina.
  • Adenocarcinoma: This is less common and more difficult to detect. It develops in the glandular cells that line the cervical canal (the endocervix).

Who gets Cervical Cancer?

Any woman can get cervical cancer, but the majority of those diagnosed with cervical cancer are aged under 65 years.

Cervical cancer is less common than it once was because the national screening programme has been so effective in picking up cases early when they can be easily treated.2

Around 165 women3 are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year and about 80% of these will not have been having regular smears.4

There are several things that can increase your risk of developing cervical cancer. The primary risk factor is:

  • Exposure to the human papilloma virus or HPV. HPVs are spread by skin-to-skin contact, including during sex. Certain types of HPV, in particular HPV 16 and HPV 18, are strongly linked with cases of cervical cancer. You can be vaccinated against HPV and this gives you some protection against cervical cancer.

Other risk factors for cervical cancer include:

  • Smoking
  • First sexual activity at a young age
  • Having a pregnancy before the age of 17
  • Infection with sexually transmitted diseases, such as herpes and chlamydia
  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Having a lowered immune system, such as having HIV/AIDS or on immunosuppressant medicines
  • Long-term use of the oral contraceptive pill.

These are general risk factors only and they do not necessarily mean that you will have cervical cancer. Check with your doctor if you have any concerns.

  1. Cancer Society of New Zealand. Cervical Cancer. Available from https://auckland-northland.cancernz.org.nz/en/cancer-information/cancer-types/cervical-cancer/. Accessed February 2016.
  2. Ministry of Health. Cervical Cancer. Available from: http://www.health.govt.nz/your-health/conditions-and-treatments/diseases-and-illnesses/cervical-cancer. Accessed February 2016.
  3. Ministry of Health. 2015. Cancer: New registrations and deaths 2012. Wellington: Ministry of Health. Available from: http://www.health.govt.nz/publication/cancer-new-registrations-and-deaths-2012. Accessed February 2016.
  4. Lewis H, et al. N Z Med J 2009;122:15-2