This week marks Cervical Cancer Prevention Week which is an opportunity to raise awareness on the risks of cervical cancer, and help people learn how they can reduce their risk of developing the disease.
Cervical cancer is the 14th most common cancer in women, with approximately 3,200 new cancers every year. It is the 19th most common form of cancer death, with approximately 850 deaths a year. Incidence rates for cervical cancer are highest in females aged 30 – 34 years, although incident and mortality rates are likely to fall in future decades, due to the impact of the HPV vaccination.
Regular screening (smear tests) can prevent up to 75% of instances of cervical cancer, saving approximately 5,000 lives per year. Despite this, many women are still reluctant to be screened, with a quarter of women not responding to their invitation for a smear test.
There are still many myths and misunderstandings surrounding cervical cancer, so below you will find the facts about the disease and how you can prevent it.
I do not need to be screened, as I am not showing any symptoms.
Although the majority of HPV infections do not show any symptoms, it is still important to be screened, particularly as high-risk types that are associated with cervical cancer often do not show any symptoms. However, abnormal cells can be detected through screening, so you should not wait until you are experiencing symptoms.
You may experience the following symptoms if cervical cancer has progressed:
- An unpleasant vaginal discharge
- Pelvic pain
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, typically after sexual intercourse, between menstrual bleeding or after menopause
- Once cervical cancer has become more invasive, you may experience leg and back pain, swelling of the leg, blood in your urine or bleeding from the rectum.
It is not possible to prevent cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is in fact one of the most preventable cancers. With regular screening and vaccination against certain types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers, more women are now surviving, with mortality rates dropping by 21% over the last decade. Lifestyle changes that can help prevent cervical cancer include:
- Stopping smoking
- Avoiding sexual contact with multiple partners
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains
- Taking regular screening
Cervical cancer only affects older women.
It is a common misconception that younger women cannot develop cervical cancer; however, the average age of diagnosis for pre-cancerous changes of the cervix is 29 years. Reports have shown that for invasive carcinoma, it is 47 years. Although it is rare for women in their 20s to develop cervical cancer, you should still be regularly screened, as prevention is better than cure.
Women are invited to attend regular screening from the age of 25, and you will be notified by letter up to 6 months before your birthday. You do not need to wait until you turn 25 before you can book your appointment. Even if you are not sexually active or experiencing any symptoms of HPV or cervical cancer, you should still get tested – at least every 3 years. Older women should continue with screening, as even after menopause your risk does not decrease.
Cervical cancer is a death sentence.
Although cervical cancer, or any type of cancer can be difficult to overcome, it is not incurable. Treatment for cervical cancer is very effective, particularly if it is detected early, so it is important that you be screened regularly so you do not miss the opportunity of detecting abnormal cervical tissues.
Cervical cancer runs in the family.
Unlike breast cancer and ovarian cancer, cervical cancer is not hereditary. It is caused by certain types of HPV, which is spread by skin contact during sex with someone who has the virus. Although HPV is very common, few men and women will go on to develop cervical cancer. The lack of a family history of cervical cancer is not a reason to skip screening. To save your child from contracting the virus, make sure they receive their HPV vaccine.
You should be screened every year.
If your smear test is normal, then you do not need to be screened every year. The NHS runs a cervical screening programme for all women aged between 25 – 64 years. Women from 25 – 49 are screened every 3 – 5 years, with women from 50 every 5 years.
I do not need a smear test as I have been vaccinated.
The HPV vaccine only protects against some types of HPV, so it is still important that you have regular smear tests.
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is the only UK charity dedicated to women and their families affected by cervical cancer and cervical abnormalities. They offer a range of information and support both online and face-to-face 24 hours a day and at every step of the journey. They also raise awareness about how cervical cancer can be prevented and campaign for best care and treatment.
To learn more about Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, click here