Cervical cancer is largely preventable with regular screening – but a quarter of all women don’t attend their appointments. Here’s why that shouldn’t be you…
In the UK, cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women aged under 35. Among women of all ages, around 3,100 are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year1 in the UK. While these are worrying statistics, routine screening can help catch cancerous, pre-cancerous and abnormal cells early, giving you a better chance of treatment and recovery.
What is cervical cancer?
The cervix is a muscle between your womb and vagina which opens during labour to allow the baby to pass through. Cervical cancer occurs when the cells in your cervix start behaving abnormally – growing or multiplying in an uncontrolled way that can cause tumours. This change is usually caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is a common virus typically passed on during sexual activity.
Most women will, at some point in their lives, come into contact with at least one type of HPV. In fact, there are around a hundred different strains of the virus – while most are harmless and go away on their own, certain strains can lead to cervical cancer in some women. Two strains in particular cause 70% of cervical cancer cases. While having those strains doesn’t automatically mean you’ll experience cervical abnormalities or cancer, it’s important to keep monitoring this.
The NHS National Screening Programmes 2012-13 found that only 7-9% of women will have abnormal cells. Of this group, only a small percentage will go on to have cancer. The most effective way to prevent this is through regular cervical screening (also called ‘smear tests’).
There’s also some preventative treatment available – the HPV vaccine is now offered to girls aged 12 to 13. But it doesn’t guarantee total protection – so it’s still important for women to have routine smear tests.
Who should attend cervical screening?
All women aged 25-64 who are registered with a GP are automatically invited to have a cervical screening test – even those who have had the HPV vaccination. Cervical cancer can easily be prevented with regular screening and, if caught early, survival rates are high2. Yet despite this free and vital service, a quarter of all women still don’t attend their cervical screening3 test.
HPV infection is responsible for 99.7% of cervical cancers4, but additional factors can increase the risk of HPV infection leading to cancer. If you smoke, you’re twice as likely to develop cervical cancer as a non-smoking women; the chemicals from cigarettes get into the cervix’s mucus and stop cells working as well to fight against the disease.
According to research, taking the pill for five years or more doubles the risk of developing cervical cancer. However, the risk is still low and the pill can protect against other cancers, such as of the ovaries and womb.
Having a weakened immune system, for example as a result of HIV or AIDS, or taking immunosuppressant drugs after an organ transplant, also increases the risk of an HPV infection leading to cervical cancer. Additionally, mothers have a greater risk of developing the disease – particularly if you had your first baby before 17 or have a larger number of children.
It’s worth remembering that all women are susceptible to pre-cancerous and cancerous cervical cells, so it’s important to be screened regularly.
Symptoms and diagnosis
Pre-cancerous cells don’t normally show any symptoms, so if you’re aged 25-64 you should be screened every three to five years. These smear tests are usually to check for pre-cancerous changes, not just cancer. This means doctors can keep a close eye on any changes and take action if it becomes necessary.
The most common symptom of cervical cancer is bleeding when you’re not on your period, during or after sex, or any time following your menopause. Some women also experience an unpleasant-smelling discharge or find sex uncomfortable. While these can be typical symptoms of many other things, it’s always worth consulting a doctor to find out what the problem is. Remember – awareness and early detection can protect your health and fertility in the long-term.
Cervical Screening Awareness Week runs from 13-19 June and is a UK-wide initiative led by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. Its aim is to highlight the importance of cervical screening – spreading the message that attending your screening invitation can help prevent against cervical cancer and protect your fertility. If you want to get involved in raising awareness, fundraising or campaigning for Cervical Screening Awareness Week, you can find out how here.
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