Cancer of the cervix is a relatively rare type of cancer. In the UK around 3,400 women are diagnosed with it each year. But, it is the most common cancer in women under 35 years old.
Cervical cancer forms in the tissues of the cervix or neck of the womb. It is usually a slow growing cancer that may or may not have symptoms.
99.7% of cervical cancers are caused by persistent human papilloma virus (HPV) infection which causes changes to the cervical cells.
The majority of women who have the virus do not develop cervical cancer.
In England about five percent of women screened will test positive for abnormal cells found as a result of screening. These abnormal cells are not cancerous but given time (often years) they may go on to develop into cancer if they are left untreated. However, often the cells return to normal by themselves.
The vast majority of cases of cervical cancer can be prevented by cervical screening and HPV vaccination.
Cervical cancer prevention week is a Europe-wide initiative. It usually takes place in January each year.
These short videos are from Jo’s Trust: a charity who specialise in cervical cancer support. They show some great videos of women talking about their diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer.
Who is at risk?
The major cause of most cervical cancers is the HPV virus. Up to 8 out of 10 women in the UK are infected with the virus at some time and for most women it goes away without treatment and without causing harm. As the virus is transmitted sexually, it is often said that ‘having sex early’ or with ‘many partners’ increases the chances of getting cervical cancer. It is important to note that this is not strictly true. Whilst becoming sexually active earlier may mean somebody having more partners, this is by no means always the case.
There are certain factors that can increase the risk of developing cervical cancer:
- Unprotected sex (without a barrier method such as a condom)
- A weakened immune system
- Taking the Pill could increase a woman’s risk of cervical cancer, although it is not clear why this is
- Women who have had a large number of children
- Around 1% of cervical cancers in the UK are linked to occupation, due to chemicals used in roles such as dry cleaning and metal degreasing
- Women living in the poorest areas of the UK are more likely to develop cervical cancers than those living in wealthier areas.
The symptoms of cervical cancer are not always obvious, and it may not cause any symptoms at all until it reaches an advanced stage, but symptoms can include:
- Bleeding between periods or after sex
- Vaginal discharge (which may smell)
- Discomfort or pain during sex
Cervical cancer is largely preventable and if caught early survival rates are high.
Encourage women to always attend cervical screening appointments. The most effective method of preventing cervical cancer is through regular cervical screening which detects any changes of the cervix before they turn into cancer.
Promote take up of the HPV vaccination. This is a new vaccination that provides protection against the two main strains of HPV. This vaccine is given to girls who are 12 to 13 years old. Vaccination can help to prevent 70% of cervical cancers. Because of the young age of children who are offered this vaccination it is important to make sure that this message is also clear to parents and carers.
There is a strong link between certain types of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and the development of abnormalities that could turn into cancer. HPV is spread through unprotected sex. Using a condom or barrier method reduces this risk, although it does not eliminate it completely.
Quit Smoking. Not smoking lowers the chances of getting cervical cancer.NHS cervical screening programme
The NHS Cervical Screening Programme in England ensures that women aged between 25 and 64 will automatically receive an invitation to attend their GP Surgery for a cervical screen, or “smear test” as it is more commonly known. Separate cervical screening programmes run in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with variation in the ages screened.
After your first cervical screen, you will receive invitations:
- Every three years between the ages of 25 and 49
- Every five years between the ages of 50 and 64
Being screened regularly means that any abnormal changes in the cervix can be identified early, and if necessary these can be treated to stop cancer developing.
It is estimated that early detection and treatment can prevent up to 75% of cervical cancers developing.
If women miss an appointment for a cervical screening test (smear) they don’t need to wait for a letter to come from the programme to make another. This is a common reason why women fail to make subsequent appointments. The (incorrectly) feel they will be judged. It is important to reassure women that practices want them to make new appointments if they have missed any. They can ring their GP practice anytime to make one. This appointment is usually with the practice nurse. Once they have attended for their screen the system ensures that they receive future appointments on time.The cervical screening (Smear) test
A cervical screening test, commonly known as a smear test, is a method of preventing cervical cancer by detecting abnormal cells in the cervix.
In most practices this is done by the practice nurse. Women can always request a female member of staff.
Women can also request to have the test done at their local Contraceptive and Sexual Health (CASH) clinic.
The nurse will be happy to answer any questions or take time to reassure. They will ask patients to lie down on a couch and will then gently put a speculum into the vagina to hold it open.
They will wipe a small brush like device over the cervix to pick up some cells.
They will transfer these cells into a container of liquid and send it away for the cells to be examined.
The results of the test will be posted and will arrive about 2 weeks after the test.
Most women’s test results show that everything is normal. But for 1 in 20 women the test will show some changes in the cells of the cervix.
Most of these changes will not lead to cervical cancer and the cells will go back to normal on their own. In some cases the abnormal cells need to be treated to prevent them becoming a problem later.
It’s a myth to believe that getting cancer is simply down to bad luck or genetic factors. Experts believe that up to half of cases can be prevented through lifestyle changes.