Cervical cancer claims around 800 lives in the UK each year, with 1 in 142 women being diagnosed in their lifetime. It can affect people of any age (most commonly women under the age 45), any sexual orientation and anyone who has a cervix, including people from the transgender, non-binary and intersex communities. The good news is that almost all cases of cervical cancer are preventable and the mortality rate is decreasing each year.
To mark this year’s Cervical Cancer Prevention Week that takes place between 18th - 24th January, and to raise awareness about this condition, we have put together five steps you or someone you know can take to lower the chance of getting cervical cancer:
1. Assess your risks
Cervical cancer is caused by a very common virus, called HPV (human papillomavirus) that spreads through skin-to-skin contact. There are many types of HPV, but most of the times this virus is harmless. Sometimes though, HPV can cause changes in your body that could lead to cancer. This can happen more often when:
- You were previously infected with HPV.
- You are a woman under the age of 45.
- You practice unsafe sex.
- You didn’t have the HPV vaccine.
- You suffer from a STI (sexually transmitted infection).
- You are a smoker.
- You are overweight or obese.
- You have a weak immune system.
- You have been taking the contraceptive pill for more than five years. The reason for this is still unclear.
- You have more than five children.
- You had your first baby before you were 17. The links between cervical cancer and childbirth are also poorly understood.
- You have a family history of cervical cancer.
- You previously suffered from another type of cancer.
Having one or more of these risks doesn’t necessarily mean that you will get the type of HPV that causes cancer, but it can help you identify aspects of your lifestyle that you can improve on and therefore work towards prevention.
2. Know the symptoms
Cervical cancer may not show any obvious signs until it’s more advanced, but most commonly, people suffering from early cervical cancer may experience:
- Vaginal bleeding - this could happen outside your normal periods, during or after sex or after menopause.
- Unusual vaginal discharge - vaginal discharge is normal, and most women experience it, but a change in your normal discharge (for example it looks and smells differently), may be a sign of infection or cervical cancer.
- Pain or discomfort during sex - this is called dyspareunia and can be caused by many reasons but you should see your doctor as soon as possible if you are experiencing this.
- Pain in your lower back or pelvis area - there are various reasons why you may be feeling lower back pain, but if there is no obvious reason for it and it’s been going on for more than 3 weeks, it’s a good idea to tell your doctor.
People with more advanced cervical cancer may experience further symptoms such as severe back pain, unexplained weight loss or constipation.
Although these symptoms are frequent in people with cervical cancer, they can also happen due to other causes, unrelated to cervical cancer. Either way, it is important to see your doctor for reassurance or to get the care you need.
3. Get your cervical screenings
Because pre-cancerous cells that cause cervical cancer don’t show any symptoms, it’s important to get a cervical screening (also known as a smear test) as often as you are invited to do so by your doctor. This may be every three years, but it can also be more often or more rarely, depending on your personal circumstances.
At a cervical screening, your doctor takes a sample of cells from your cervix to check for any abnormal cells and the human papilloma virus (HPV). Cervical screening prevents over 7 in 10 cervical cancer diagnosis by identifying if you are at higher risk of getting cancer, meaning you can get the treatment you need early.
It is important to know that cervical screening is not a test for cancer and it’s not for people that have symptoms. If you are concerned about any symptoms, you should contact your GP.
Cervical screening in the UK is offered for free by the NHS. Females that are registered with a UK surgery and are between the ages of 15 to 64 should automatically get an invitation for cervical screening, but anyone with a cervix is entitled to it and you can call your doctor to enquire.
4. Learn about the HPV vaccine
The HPV vaccine protects around 70% percent of people who take it, by guarding against some high-risk HPV and therefore helping prevent cervical cancer for at least 10 years since the person had the vaccine.
There are three different HPV vaccines in the UK, each protecting against certain types of HPV. One is available for free on the NHS as part of a vaccination programme that aims to vaccinate 12-13 year olds. But the vaccines can also be given for free on the NHS up until the 25th birthday if you were eligible when you were in school. The vaccine is given at such a young age because it is most effective before teenagers become sexually active and therefore before they come into contact with HPV.
If you’re 25 or older, there are different ways to get the HPV vaccine such as privately (not on the NHS), but make sure you talk to your GP first.
The vaccine doesn’t only prevent cervical cancer, it also helps protect against genital warts and some other types of cancers caused by HPV including some mouth, throat, anal and genital cancers. But even you already had the vaccine, you should not skip on your cervical screening as the vaccine doesn’t guarantee total protection against cervical cancer.
5. Spread the word
The aim of the Cervical Cancer Prevention Week is to spread the right information so that many more people are aware of cervical cancer and know the steps towards prevention. Whether it is through word of mouth, social media or other means, sharing what you already know can potentially reach the right person and prevent someone from getting cervical cancer.
Like any other type of cancer, the sooner cervical cancer is spotted, the better you can respond to treatment. That is why, knowing the symptoms and the risks, going in for cervical screening and talking to your doctor as soon as you become worried are crucial in preventing cervical cancer.
We know that things are a bit different right now because of the Covid-19 pandemic and you might feel concerned about accepting a cervical screening invitation. But don’t forget that you can always request a telephone appointment with your surgery to talk about your concerns or get support from charitable organisations such as Jo’s cervical cancer trust.
Disclaimer: The content of this article is provided for informational purposes only and does not substitute the medical advice from a healthcare professional.