Being diagnosed with cervical cancer

If your GP thinks you have cervical cancer, or if abnormal cells were found in your cervical screening test, you will need to go to hospital to be diagnosed. Tests you may need to have include:

  • a colposcopy – this allows your doctor to look more closely at your cervix. It isn’t usually painful but you may feel stinging if a biopsy is taken.
  • a large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ) procedure – you will be given local anaesthetic and your doctor will use a thin wire to cut away the abnormal area. This could be done at your colposcopy appointment, or at a separate outpatient appointment.
  • a needle excision of the transformation zone (NETZ) – this is similar to a LLETZ except the thin wire is straight.
  • a cone biopsy – you will usually have a general anaesthetic and your doctor will remove a small cone-shaped section of the cervix.

Waiting for test results can be difficult. You may want to talk to someone close to you or one of our cancer support specialists.

How cervical cancer is diagnosed

Usually you begin by seeing your family doctor (GP), who will examine you and may refer you to the hospital for a specialist assessment and tests.

If your GP suspects you may have cancer, you will be referred urgently to the hospital and seen within two weeks.

If you have had an abnormal smear test following your cervical screening test you may be referred directly for a colposcopy.


Colposcopy

A colposcopy allows your doctor or colposcopy nurse to look closely at your cervix. They use a colposcope (a special magnifying glass) to help them examine your cervix in detail. You’ll have your colposcopy at your local colposcopy unit. This is usually at a hospital outpatient clinic. Before your colposcopy your doctor or nurse will ask you about your symptoms. They’ll ask you to undress from the waist down and help you position yourself on a specially designed chair or examination table.

When you’re lying comfortably, the colposcopist will put a speculum into your vagina, in the same way as in a cervical screening test. This allows them to see your cervix. They will paint your cervix with different liquids to help any abnormal areas show up more clearly. They’ll also shine a light on the cervix when they look through the colposcope to examine its surface.

The colposcope doesn’t touch you or go inside your body.

If the colposcopist sees any abnormal areas, they’ll take a small sample of cells (biopsy). These are examined under a microscope in the laboratory.

A colposcopy takes 15–20 minutes. It’s not usually painful, but you may feel some stinging if a biopsy is taken. The biopsy may also cause some slight bleeding for a couple of days afterwards. You shouldn’t have sex for five days to allow the biopsy site to heal.


Large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ)

If the abnormal area can’t be seen properly with a colposcope, you may have a LLETZ procedure. LLETZ is the most common way of removing abnormal cells from an area of the cervix called the transformation zone. It is sometimes called LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure). It may be done during your colposcopy appointment or at a separate outpatient appointment. It normally takes 5–10 minutes.

Once you’re in a comfortable position, the doctor will put a speculum into your vagina and inject some local anaesthetic into your cervix to numb it. They will use the colposcope to look at your cervix. They then use a thin wire, which is shaped in a loop, to cut away the abnormal area.

The procedure is not normally painful, but you may feel uncomfortable and have some period-like pains for a couple of days. You can take simple painkillers if you need to.

It’s usual to have some slight bleeding or discharge afterwards, which can last for a few weeks.

You should avoid sex, swimming, using tampons and baths until the bleeding has stopped. This is to reduce the risk of developing an infection.

Your doctor or nurse will tell you more about the procedure and what to expect.


Needle excision of the transformation zone (NETZ)

This is similar to a LLETZ, except that the thin wire used to cut away the affected area is straight, rather than in a loop.


Cone biopsy

Some women have a cone biopsy to remove the abnormal area in the cervix. This takes about 15 minutes and it is usually done under a general anaesthetic. You may need to stay in hospital overnight.

Your doctor will remove a small, cone-shaped section of the cervix, which is large enough to contain the abnormal cells.

Area of cone biopsy – shown by dotted line
Area of cone biopsy – shown by dotted line

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After a cone biopsy, your doctor or nurse will place a gauze pack, which is like a tampon, in your vagina to help stop any bleeding. This is usually removed within 24 hours, and before you go home. They may also put a thin tube, called a catheter, into your bladder so that you can pass urine while the gauze pack is in place.

It’s normal to have some light bleeding for a few weeks after a cone biopsy. You should avoid sex, swimming, using tampons, baths and strenuous physical activity for 4–6 weeks while the cervix is healing.

Your doctor will tell you when and how you’ll be told the results of your tests and whether you need more tests or treatment.


Waiting for test results

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. It may take from a few days to a couple of weeks for the results of your tests to be ready. You may find it helpful to talk with your partner, family or a close friend. Your specialist nurse or one of the organisations listed on our database, can also provide support. You can also talk things over with one of our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00.

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Further tests after diagnosis

If you’ve been diagnosed with cervical cancer, you will need further tests to find out more about the cancer and your general health.