It’s Cervical Cancer Prevention Week and with access to cervical screening appointments and the HPV vaccine challenged by COVID, we wanted to give you the know-how on how to reduce your risk of cervical cancer.
What is cervical cancer and how common is it?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that develops in a woman's cervix (the entrance to the womb from the vagina).
Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women. In 2018, an estimated 570,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer worldwide and about 311,000 women died from the disease. Around 3,000 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year. It's possible for women of all ages to develop cervical cancer, but the condition mainly affects sexually active women aged between 30 and 45.
Cancer of the cervix takes the lives of two women every day. Three-quarters of those diagnosed could be prevented through cervical screening (also known as cervical smear tests or cervical cancer screening). As a preventable disease, we must talk more about cervical cancer, how we test for it and how to treat the early warning signs.
So, what can we do to reduce our risk?
- First and foremost: Attend your cervical screening when invited
If you have a million other things to do, have no symptoms whatsoever, and always struggle getting a doctor’s appointment at the best of times, you may put off attending a cervical screening test. Please remember this screening programme saves lives, and the lack of symptoms means cervical cancer often goes undetected. Prioritise your screening. Equally, you may have heard negative things about the cervical screening test and worry about what it involves. Talk to your doctor or practise nurse. They will go through the procedure with you and put your mind at ease. The examination is over in seconds, can be uncomfortable but not painful and most of us don’t feel a thing.
If you’re an anxious person or have had a family/friend with cervical cancer, it is often tempting to go for your cervical screening earlier than invited (they start aged 25 years in England). However, unless you are having any symptoms this is not helpful. Cervical screening in young women is more likely to pick up normal cell changes, which may result in unnecessary treatment while not changing the number of cases of cancer. Cervical cancer in women below aged 25 is very rare. Again, talk to your doctor about your worries and if there are any abnormal symptoms that suggest examination or further investigation is appropriate.
- Know the symptoms of cervical cancer and seek medical advice:
Symptoms can include irregular menstrual bleeding, bleeding between periods, bleeding after sex, increased vaginal discharge, pain during sex, and bleeding after the menopause. These symptoms do not exclusively mean cervical cancer, and they are present in many different diseases too. However, if you are having them, you should seek medical advice so they can complete a thorough history and examination. If anything feels unusual for your body, see a professional to get checked.
- Having the HPV vaccination at age 11-18:
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the name given to a very common group of viruses. There are many types of HPV, some of which are called "high risk" because they're linked to the development of cancers, including cervical cancer. Other types can cause conditions such as warts or verrucas. Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by infection with a high-risk type of HPV.HPV infections don't usually cause any symptoms, and most people won't know they're infected. In England, girls aged 12-13 years are routinely offered the first HPV vaccination, with the second dose 6-12 months after the first. The HPV vaccine is effective at stopping girls getting the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers.
- Talking to friends and family:
A huge part of reducing yours and others’ risk of cervical cancer is by improving the education around it, and ensuring those people close to you are well informed. Talk to your friends and family, discuss cervical cancer, smear tests and educate each other.
- Know where to find support and further information:
There is a wealth of support and information out there, including medical advice at your GP or hospital, as well as via your sexual health clinic. Spread the word this week, and let’s work together to reduce the risk of cervical cancer. We want every woman to know that cervical screening can prevent cervical cancer.
Share this information with friends, mention it in the family group chat, whatever you do and however you do it: let’s keep the conversation around cervical cancer going. Want to talk? Head over to our HANX Life forum for zero judgement chat about intimate health issues, relationships and sexual wellness.