How is cervical cancer diagnosed?


If you have HPV infection, it does not mean you have cervical cancer. It takes about 10 to 15 years for cervical cancer to develop, and cervical cancer is a rare outcome.

You may have more tests to confirm a diagnosis of cervical cancer. These may be done if your Cervical Screening Test shows you have:

  • a type of HPV infection that requires further investigation
  • abnormal cells that require treatment
  • symptoms of cervical cancer.

The tests might include a colposcopy, a biopsy, or other types of tests.


A colposcopy is a procedure that allows the doctor to see a magnified view of the cervix, vagina and vulva. This can help identify where abnormal or changed cells are and what they look like. The doctor will probably also take a tissue sample (biopsy) during the procedure.

The doctor will insert a device called a speculum into your vagina. They will then use an instrument called a colposcope – this looks like a pair of binoculars sitting on a large stand – to view a magnified picture of the cervix, vagina and vulva. The colposcope does not enter your body.

Before the test, the doctor may coat your vagina and cervix with a liquid that will help highlight any abnormal areas. You may experience some mild discomfort during the procedure, which usually takes 10–15 minutes.

Some colposcopes are fitted with a camera, which is connected to a TV screen. This may allow you to watch what the doctor is doing. You should feel free to ask the doctor to explain what is happening.


A biopsy is when your doctor removes some cervical tissue and sends it to the laboratory for examination under a microscope. When the tissue is removed, you may feel uncomfortable for a short time.

Biopsies are usually performed in the examination room or in a clinic. The results should be back from the laboratory within about 1 week.

After a biopsy, you may experience some pain, similar to menstrual cramping. You can ask for medication to relieve the pain. You may also have some bleeding or other vaginal discharge, but these side effects will gradually disappear.

To allow the cervix to heal after a biopsy and to reduce the chance of infection, you should not have sex or use tampons for at least a few days.

Further tests

If the biopsy (or samples taken during treatment for precancerous abnormalities) shows that you have cervical cancer, a number of other tests may be done. These will determine the extent of the cancer in your cervix and whether it has spread (metastasised) to other parts of the body. This is called staging, and will help you and your doctor decide on the best treatment for you.

You may have one or more of the following tests.

Blood tests

You may have blood tests to assess your general health and to help with making decisions about your treatment.

Chest X-ray

Chest X-rays can help identify whether the cancer has spread to the lungs.


An ultrasound uses high-energy sound waves to make pictures of body tissues.

CT scan

A computerised tomography (CT) scan is a type of X-ray procedure that takes pictures of the inside of your body. This painless test will help your doctor assess if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or to other organs.

You may be given a drink or injection of a liquid (called contrast fluid). This may make you feel hot all over for a few minutes. You may also have a tampon inserted into your vagina before the scan. These will help to give a clearer picture.

A CT scan takes about 5–10 minutes. You will lie flat on a table while the CT scanner, which is large and round like a doughnut, rotates around you and takes a series of pictures.

After the scan, you can usually go home.

People who are allergic to iodine may also be allergic to the dye used in a CT scan. If you think you may have such an allergy, tell your doctor before the scan.

MRI scan[2]

A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan uses a powerful magnet linked to a computer to take detailed pictures of areas inside the body. The pictures are taken while you lie on a table that slides into a metal cylinder.

An MRI scan is painless, but some people find that lying in the cylinder is noisy and uncomfortably small. You can sometimes request someone in your room for company. If you feel uncomfortable, let your doctor or nurse know – they can give you medication to ease this feeling, and you will usually be given earplugs or headphones.

The scan takes 30–90 minutes, and most people can go home as soon as it is over.

People with a pacemaker or any other metal implant can affect how an MRI works. If you have any metal implants, you should let your doctor know before the scan.

PET scan

You might have a positron emission tomography (PET) scan. PET scans are similar to CT scans – in fact, PET and CT scanners are often combined within the same machine.

Before the scan, you will be injected with a liquid that contains a small amount of radioactive material. This takes 30–60 minutes to spread throughout your body. Cancerous cells will take up more of the liquid than normal cells and will appear brighter in the scan.

The scan itself takes about 30 minutes.[3]

Examination under general anaesthetic

You may be given a general anaesthetic so your vagina, cervix, bladder and rectum can be carefully examined. A biopsy may also be taken during this examination. The doctor will insert a narrow instrument called a cystoscope into your urethra to examine your bladder. A sigmoidoscope – a tube with a camera attached – may be used to examine your rectum more closely.

You may also have some of the cells in your uterus removed for examination. The process of removing the lining of the uterus (endometrium) is called a dilation and curettage (D&C). After a D&C, bleeding is common for a few days.

Grading and staging

Knowing the grade and stage of the cancer helps you and your doctors to decide on the most appropriate treatment.


The grade of a cancer refers to how similar the cancer cells are to normal cells. Low-grade tumours tend to grow more slowly and are usually easier to treat. High-grade tumours grow faster and spread more quickly.

A pathologist grades cervical cancer using cells or tissue from biopsies, and results from imaging and other tests.[4]


The stage of a cancer refers to how far the cancer has spread. The staging system used for cervical cancer is the FIGO system, developed by the International Federation for Gynecology and Obstetrics:

Stage 0 (carcinoma in situ): the cancer is confined to the surface layers (cells lining the cervix).

Stage I (early or localised cancer): the cancer has grown deeper into the cervix but has not spread beyond it.

Stage II (locally advanced cancer): the cancer has spread beyond the cervix and uterus but has not spread to the pelvic wall or lower part of the vagina.

Stage III (locally advanced cancer): the cancer has spread to the pelvic wall or the lower part of the vagina. It may also have spread to lymph nodes in the pelvis or abdomen, or has caused a kidney to stop working.

Stage IV (metastatic or advanced cancer): the cancer has spread beyond the pelvis, involves the bladder or the rectum or has spread to more distant organs.