The largest study of the effects of cervical cancer is to examine its impact on men.

Researchers plan to question more than 500 women with the disease to gauge its psychological and emotional burden on them and their partners.

Alison Nightingale of the Postgraduate Medical School, University of Surrey, who will lead the study, said: "Men may not understand why their partner has sexual issues. They might not understand what she is going through. Consequently that woman may feel unsupported by her partner, or perhaps over-supported."

"There is virtually no information regarding the response of partners to cervical cancer. I think partners are a neglected group of people who probably need a substantial amount of support, or at least some way of understanding what is going on."

Mrs Nightingale, 32, was herself diagnosed with cervical cancer in August 2004. "In my personal experience, and also in the experience of many women I have been in contact with, cervical cancer is a very lonely disease."

The research, which is expected to take five years will look at sexual problems, depression and anxiety, coping mechanisms and how women and their partners adjust to the diagnosis and treatment.

It will examine the difficulty women have in resuming their sex lives, and the effect the cancer has on their relationship, especially if they are left infertile.

"Many women do return to a normal sex life - but around 25 per cent are put off sex completely. Some women split up with their partner and find new partners. Others are happy not to have sex again."

"Infertility can be as devastating as a life-threatening illness. With cervical cancer there is the trauma of a life-threatening disease and the trauma of infertility - that's a pretty hard thing to cope with."

About 3,000 women a year are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 1,000 die. It is the second most common cancer in women under the age of 35 in the UK.

Simon Butler-Manuel, co-organiser of the study, said it was wrongly perceived as a minor disease because the number of deaths was relatively low. "It is pretty devastating on every level - physical, body image, impact on partners, psychological and sexual issues."

The NHS screening programme, which detects changes in the cervix before it becomes cancerous which can then be treated, prevents an estimated 5,000 deaths a year.

However, research published in the British Journal of Cancer this month found the screening programme could lead to women becoming worried unnecessarily about their risk of developing the disease.

The study found that women with slightly abnormal smear test results were not given enough reassurance, despite the fact that few of them would develop cancer and most cells simply returned to normal.

The biggest hope for cervical cancer is that scientists have developed a vaccine that, it is hoped, could save the lives of thousands.

The jab protects against all four strains of human papilloma virus, which is sexually transmitted and causes 75 per cent of all cases of cancer of the cervix.

The Gardasil vaccine has been developed by Merck and has already won approval from US authorities.

It could be available in Britain in a couple of years if it wins approval here.

The charity Cancer Research UK believes it could prevent up to 2,800 cases every year in Britain.