Cervical cancer

In New Zealand, about 160 women develop cervical cancer each year – and about 50 die from it.

Taku hauora, taku tinana, taku tūmanako
My health, my body, my future

Cervical cancer is caused by some strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus that is passed on by sexual contact.

You can help protect yourself against cervical cancer by:

About cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus or womb.

Cervical cancer develops slowly over time, usually taking many years, when abnormal cells grow on the cervix. These abnormal cells are caused by infection with high-risk types of HPV.

Abnormalities in the cells of the cervix can be detected by cervical screening and removed. Each year there are around 25,000 abnormal smear test results among New Zealand women.

  • Without cervical screening about one out of 90 women will develop cervical cancer and one out of 200 will die from it.
  • With cervical screening about one out of 570 will develop cervical cancer and one out of 1280 will die from it.

Regular three-yearly cervical smear tests are recommended for all women aged 20 to 70 who have ever been sexually active. Visit the Time to Screen website for more information.

Risk factors for cervical cancer

The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is persistent HPV infection.

Other factors may contribute, including:

  • genetics: some women are more likely to get cancer than others (family history)
  • smoking: tobacco is a factor in causing many types of cancer, including cervical cancer. Women who smoke are twice as likely as non-smokers to develop cervical cancer
  • nutrition: women with a diet low in fruits and vegetables have an increased risk
  • number of sexual partners: the more sexual partners a person has, the higher their risk of contracting HPV
  • not having regular smear tests: this increases a woman’s risk of developing cervical cancer.

Cervical cancers not caused by HPV

Some kinds of cervical cancer are not caused by HPV, but these are very rare and are usually types of cancer that cervical screening tests cannot find early or prevent.

They include cancer of the skin (melanoma) that has spread to the cervix and cancers of the muscles, nerves and connective tissues of the cervix.

Development of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer can develop over 10 or more years. There can be a long interval between being infected with HPV, the development of abnormalities and the development of cancer.

  • Women receiving normal cervical smear test results can already be infected with HPV.
  • A small proportion of women infected with HPV whose immune systems are not clearing the infection are at risk of developing precancerous abnormalities. If these are not detected through cervical screening and treated, they can lead to cervical cancer.
  • Most but not all women with high-grade abnormalities on the cervix will develop cervical cancer if they are not treated.

Find out more from the Ministry

You can find out more about the HPV immunisation programme and the vaccine at HPV immunisation programme.

In this section

  • Regular cervical screening is your best protection against developing cervical cancer. Find out more about the tests and who should have them. Read more
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