Being diagnosed with cervical cancer

You may have a specialist assessment and tests at the hospital if

  • your GP suspects you may have cervical cancer
  • you have an abnormal cervical screening result.

Tests may include:

  • A colposcopy. This test looks closely at your cervix. It is not usually painful, but you may feel some discomfort if a sample (biopsy) is taken.
  • A large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ) procedure. You will be given an anaesthetic and your doctor will remove the abnormal area using a thin, loop-shaped wire.
  • 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.

After these tests, any tissue that is removed is sent to the laboratory to be looked at. You may have some light vaginal bleeding or discharge. Your team will explain what to expect and how to look after yourself.

How cervical cancer is diagnosed

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

If your GP suspects you may have cancer, they will refer you urgently to the hospital and you will be 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

This test uses a microscope called a colposcope to look closely at your cervix. You can usually have it done at a hospital outpatient clinic.

A specialist doctor or nurse will do the colposcopy. To get ready for the test you undress from the waist down. You then lie on your back on an examination couch. Some clinics have ones with foot or leg supports you can rest your legs up on. You will be asked to lie with your knees bent and apart. The doctor or nurse puts an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. This holds the vagina open so that they can see your cervix. They put a liquid on your cervix to show any abnormal areas. They then shine a light onto your cervix and look at it through the colposcope. The colposcope is on a stand outside your body, between your legs or feet.

The doctor or nurse may take a small sample of cells from the cervix (a biopsy). These will be sent to a laboratory to be looked at.

Getting ready for a colposcopy
Getting ready for a colposcopy

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How a colposcopy is done
How a colposcopy is done

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A colposcopy takes 15 to 20 minutes. It is not usually painful, but if a biopsy is taken you may feel some discomfort. The biopsy can cause slight bleeding and you may have some vaginal bleeding for up to two weeks. You may be advised not to have penetrative sex, use tampons or go swimming for a few days after a biopsy. This is to reduce the risk of infection and to give your cervix time to heal.


Large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ)

LLETZ is a common way to remove abnormal cells from the cervix. It is sometimes called LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure).

LLETZ takes about 5 to 10 minutes. It is usually done under local anaesthetic as an outpatient. If a larger area of the cervix is to be removed, you may need a general anaesthetic. In this case, you may have a night in hospital before you go home.

Some local anaesthetic is used to numb your cervix. Then the doctor or nurse removes the abnormal area using a thin, loop-shaped tool. The loop is heated with an electric current. This cuts and seals the tissue at the same time. This should not be painful, but you may feel some pressure inside your cervix.

The removed area of tissue will be sent to a laboratory to be checked and to confirm the type of abnormal cell changes.

It is usual to have some light bleeding or discharge afterwards. This can last for a few weeks.

You may be advised not to use tampons and to avoid sex, swimming, and baths for a few days. This is to reduce the risk of infection and to let the cervix heal. Follow the advice you are given.


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

A cone biopsy is a small operation to cut a small, cone-shaped piece of tissue from the cervix. It can also be used to treat very early stage cervical cancer.

The procedure is usually done under a general anaesthetic and you may need to stay in hospital overnight.  Afterwards, you may have a small pack of gauze (like a tampon) in the vagina to prevent bleeding. You may also have a tube to drain urine from the bladder while the gauze pack is in place. The gauze pack and tube are usually removed within 24 hours. Then you can go home.

The cone-shaped piece of tissue will be sent to a laboratory to be checked and to confirm the type of abnormal cell changes. 

Area of cervix removed
Area of cervix removed

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