Cervical cancer: Why getting a smear test could save your life

Attending a cervical smear test may not be at the top of your to-do list – but as cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35, it really should be1.

Not only are the incidence rates for cervical cancer in the UK highest in people aged 25-29, but there are over 3200 new cases diagnosed each year2. That’s nine new cases every day. However, a quarter of women don't attend their appointments when invited3. Routine screening can help to catch pre-cancerous and abnormal cells early on, giving you a better chance of recovery.

Who should attend a 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.

If you’re aged 25-49 you should be screened every three years, and every five years if you're aged 50-644. These smear tests are usually to check for pre-cancerous changes, not just cancer. It’s really important to make sure you attend your screening as your doctor will be able to monitor any changes and take action if necessary.

cervical cancer ribbon

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

The symptoms of cervical cancer aren’t always apparent and pre-cancerous cells don’t usually show any signs5. The most common symptom of cervical cancer is bleeding that occurs when you’re not on your period, during or after sex, or any time following your menopause.

Some women experience an unpleasant smelling discharge or find sex uncomfortable5. While these can be typical symptoms of many other things, it’s always worth consulting a doctor to be certain what the problem is. Although a cervical screening may feel mildly uncomfortable, the benefits are so important. Awareness and early detection can protect your health and fertility in the long-term.

woman at doctors

What causes cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer occurs when the cells in your cervix start behaving abnormally. If cells begin to grow or multiply in an uncontrolled way, it can cause tumours. In almost all cases, this change is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is a common virus typically passed on during sexual activity6.

At some point in their lives, most women will come into contact with at least one type of HPV. In fact, there are more than 100 different strains of the virus6. Most are harmless and go away on their own, but certain strains can lead to cervical cancer in some women. Having those strains doesn’t automatically mean you’ll experience cervical abnormalities or cancer, but it’s important to keep it monitored.

Risk factors

Although HPV infection is responsible for over 99% of cervical cancers6, 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-smoker6. The chemicals from cigarettes get into the cervix’s mucus and stop cells working as well to fight against the disease.

birth control

According to research, taking the pill for five years or more doubles the risk of developing cervical cancer6. However, the risk is still low and the pill can protect against other cancers, such as ovarian and womb cancer7

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 cancer6. 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 really important to be screened regularly.

If you’d like to find out more information on cervical cancer,
please call us on 0800 157 7747 or make an online enquiry.

1 https://www.jostrust.org.uk/about-cervical-cancer

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