Every woman should be aware of the signs of cervical cancer

cervical cancer causes, symptoms and prevention   women's health uk
Your cervical cancer need-to-know Tony Anderson - Getty Images

June 17-23 is Cervical Screening Awareness Week. This is a seriously necessary event: in the UK, two women lose their lives to the disease every day. In that same timeframe, nine are diagnosed with the illness.

The absolute best way to reduce your risk of cervical cancer is by getting your smear test, when you're called up for it. Make booking yours in a priority.

More than half of these are diagnosed in women aged under 45 and, of these, most occur in women aged 25-29. Which makes cervical cancer the most common cancer in women under 35. What's vital to know is this: A huge 75% of cervical cancers can be prevented through the early detection that comes courtesy of smear tests.

‘There’s not enough understanding about the importance of having a cervical smear test and how incredibly effective it can be at preventing cervical cancer,’ says consultant gynaecologist and gynaecological oncologist Tania Adib.

‘But by picking up cervical cancer early,’ Adib says, ‘it’s completely curable.’

What are the signs of cervical cancer?

It's important to note, says Adib, that many women experience no cervical cancer symptoms at all – regardless of its stage.

However, for those who do show signs some of the most common symptoms, Dr Susanna Unsworth, gynaecology expert for INTIMINA, says these include:

Changes to your normal vaginal bleeding

This could be bleeding that occurs in between period, after sex, or new bleeding that occurs after your periods have finished (ie, when you're postmenopausal). See your GP if this happens to you.

Changes to your normal vaginal discharge

If your discharge has become thicker, changed in colour or smell or appears blood stained, see your GP.

Painful sex

If sex hurts, and simple measures like using lubrication don't help, speak to your GP.

‘As the condition progresses,’ Adib adds, ‘cervical cancer symptoms could include pain in the pelvis, back and legs; weight loss; sickness and difficulty passing urine. But these would signify an advanced stage; we want to catch it much earlier than that.’

What causes cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix (the neck of the womb). Nearly all cases of it are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, it’s so common that, according to cervical cancer charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, around 80% of all sexually active adults will be infected with it at some point in their lives.

The key thing to note, however, is that not all HPVs are equal. ‘There are more than 100 different types,’ says Rebecca Shoosmith, Head of Support Services of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.

‘Most of those will be cleared by the body’s immune system, however, in some cases, it can cause abnormal cells, which if not treated or monitored could develop into cervical cancer.’

In terms of who’s most at risk, it’s quite simply any woman who’s sexually active. ‘HPV is spread during sexual intercourse as well as other types of sexual activity such as skin-to-skin contact of the genital area,’ says Tracie Miles, Information Nurse for gynaecological cancer research charity The Eve Appeal. ‘It can take years for pre-cancer changes to appear following the virus being passed on.’

There are other factors though that can make a difference, Miles says:

1. Smoking

'Women who smoke are twice as likely to develop cervical cancer than women who don’t.’

2. The Pill

‘Women who take the oral contraceptive pill for more than five years are thought to have twice the risk of developing cervical cancer than those who don’t. However, the pill reduces the risk of developing other women’s cancers such as ovarian cancer.’ Read this before considering coming off the pill.

3. Immunosuppression drugs

‘Women who take immunosuppression drugs (which reduce the strength of the body’s immune system) can be at increased risk of developing cervical cancer.’

How is cervical cancer diagnosed and treated?

Cervical cancer is diagnosed via a cervical smear test. This is basically a direct window into your cervical health. ‘Cervical screening is estimated to save approximately 5,000 lives each year,’ Miles says. How? It works by picking up on the abnormal cells caused by HPV before they develop into a serious cancerous stage.

Catch these cells early and they can be removed by a simple procedure called a loop cone biopsy, which involves removing a cone of tissue from the cervix. No other medication and no other treatment required; that’s it.

‘If the cancer is more advanced but still early,’ Adib says. ‘There’s an operation called a trachelectomy, which involves removing the whole cervix plus some of the surrounding tissue, then stitching the womb closed.

'This means your fertility is preserved and you can go on to have children [if this is what you want.]. Anything more advanced will involve a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which will leave you infertile.’

How can cervical cancer be prevented?

1. Smear tests

These really are a game-changer when it comes to cervical cancer. ‘Having regular cervical screening offers the best protection against developing cervical cancer,’ Shoosmith says.

Still feeling squeamish? ‘A cervical smear test doesn’t hurt,’ Adib says. ‘Plus, it takes a matter of minutes, and a lot of GPs and clinics now offer evening and weekend appointments so there’s no need to take time off work.’

Do not let feeling insecure in your own skin from attending what could be a life-saving test. Medical professionals carry out millions of tests every year so yours isn't the first – and won't be the last – vagina they've seen.

2. HPV vaccine

You can also reduce your risk of cervical cancer by using a condom (although it won’t completely stop transmission of the virus), and getting the HPV vaccine, which offers protection against the high-risk HPV types 16 and 18 that cause 70% of all cervical cancers.

FYI, although the vaccine is typically offered to girls aged 12-17, if you’ve never had sexual intercourse, you could still be eligible, so it’s worth checking with your GP.

3. Taking care of yourself

Finally, don’t overlook the value of taking care of yourself. ‘If you’re run down and tired, you’re not going to be able to clear any virus compared with if you were in peak health,’ Adib says. Eating well, stress reduction techniques such as yoga and meditation, enough downtime and moving your body all have their part to play.

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