Written by Sarah Brown
Sarah is a registered nurse with hospital experience in cardiology and intensive care, gained at St Thomas' and Guy's Hospitals in London.
Cervical cancer accounts for approximately 2% of all cancers diagnosed in women, with around 3,200 women in the UK per year being diagnosed. It's also the most common cancer in women under 35. The good news is that 99.8% of cases are preventable, which highlights the importance of attending cervical screening when you’re invited to.1
Here, registered nurse Sarah Brown from our Health at Hand team picks out some key facts and frequently asked questions about cervical cancer you need to know…
Be aware of HPV
99.7% of cervical cancers are caused by persistent high-risk HPV infections, which cause changes to the cervical cells.2 HPV is an extremely common virus; around four out of five people (80%) will contract one type of the virus at some point during their lifetime. HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, which means that anyone who has ever been sexually active could be infected. The body’s immune system will usually clear up HPV infections and generally most people don’t even know they have contracted the virus. Cervical cancer itself is not infectious.
Find out more about HPV and cervical cancer here.
What about the HPV vaccine?
HPV vaccines provide protection against the two high risk strains of HPV, which cause 70% of all cervical cancers. Research has indicated that the HPV vaccine could prevent two thirds of cervical cancer cases in women under 30 by 2015. Although having the vaccine reduces your chances of getting cervical cancer, it doesn’t eliminate them.
Men who have sex with other men are also eligible to have this vaccination, they can source it through any sexual health clinic.
From September 2019 boys will be eligible to have the HPV vaccination through the school based immunisation programme.
Smoking increases your chances of developing cervical cancer
It is believed that smoking impairs local immunity in the cervix meaning that HPV is more likely to cause the abnormal changes in cells that can result in the cancer developing. If you're a smoker and need to some help to stop, take a look at our article for tips on how to quit smoking for good.
What about the pill?
Research suggests that women who have taken the pill for at least 5 years have a higher chance of getting cervical cancer, but the risk remains small. Bear in mind that the pill can help protect you against womb and ovarian cancers. After ten years off the pill, your risk level returns to normal.
Cervical cancer develops slowly
The mutations that cause cervical cancer develop over a long period of time.
What to look out for:
Vaginal bleeding between periods and during or after sex could be a sign that something is wrong. Smelly vaginal discharge is also worth paying attention to. Although most women with these symptoms will not have cervical cancer, it's important to see your doctor to rule out serious illness.
How is cervical cancer detected?
Cell samples are collected from the cervix during a smear test. You may be offered a smear test if you exhibit symptoms of cervical cancer, if you are over 25, or if your doctor sees something that concerns them during a pelvic examination.
Cervical screening: the key to prevention
Cervical screening isn’t checking for cancer, it’s checking for cell abnormalities that have the potential to develop into cancer in the future. If these ‘pre-cancerous’ cells are present they can most often be treated with a straightforward procedure.
Not going for cervical cancer screening is one of the biggest risk factors for developing it.
According to Cancer Research, cervical screening can prevent at least 45% of cervical cancers in women in their 30s, 60% of cervical cancers in women in their 40s, and 75% of cervical cancers in women in their 50s and 60s.
Our article on the importance of cervical screening provides more information on this topic, including a compelling argument as to why the screening process isn't nearly as unpleasant or uncomfortable as some people think...
1 Cervical cancer statistics - Cancer Research UK
2 Walboomers JMM et al.,1999. Human papillomavirus is a necessary cause of invasive cancer worldwide. Journal of Pathology, 189 (1), 12–19