A new imaging technique can locate previously undetectable early stage cervical cancers.
A pilot study suggests it will enable doctors to carry out precise surgery to remove the tumours, rather than having to opt for a full hysterectomy.
The Institute of Cancer Research team say this should mean more patients can retain their fertility.
Details of the technique - diffusion weighted imaging - feature in the journal Radiology.
Using a vaginal probe, it works by exploiting differences in the motion of water within cancerous and healthy tissues.
This produces images with a higher level of contrast between developing tumours and the surrounding healthy tissue than have been possible using the traditional external pelvic scan.
The pilot study, based on 59 women with cervical cancer aged between 24 and 83, produced highly promising results.
The researchers found 88% of tumours could be detected using an internal probe and diffusion-weighted imaging, compared with only 77% using external scans.
Lead researcher Professor Nandita deSouza said the new technique could not only pinpoint the location of tumours, it could also accurately determine their size.
She said: "With conventional scanning techniques, small tumours are harder to identify or to differentiate from scar tissue, particularly if the patient has had a recent biopsy.
"In these cases, conventional imaging can overestimate the level of cancer within the cervix and result in major surgery leading to infertility.
"The quality of the information from the images produced using this new method has allowed us to identify and define smaller tumours more accurately.
"We can use this information to plan less radical surgery, preserving as much of the uterus and the cervix as possible."
Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, which funded the study, said improvements to imaging research to boost detection and diagnosis of cancers was a priority for the charity.
She said: "This small study is extremely promising and provides a clear rationale for more extensive studies."
Around 2,700 women are diagnosed each year in the UK, making it the second most common cancer in women under 35. Approximately 1,000 women a year die from the disease in the UK.
6 months ago