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Cervical cancer – the facts

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The cervix and transformation zone

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under the age of 35 and over 3,000 women are diagnosed in the UK every year. Despite a nationwide cervical cancer screening programme that has been in place since the 1980s, only 66% of younger women and 80% of older women attend screening*. If cervical cancer is diagnosed in the early stages, up to 90% of women aged under 40 will survive. This is why early detection is so important.

Perhaps most crucially, as cervical cancer is often a slow disease process, it can be detected and very successfully treated in the pre-cancerous stages. If a woman attends regular screening then cancer is very unlikely to develop, as pre-cancerous changes can be treated in a very timely manner.

The major advantage of GynaeCheck is that it avoids the need for a very invasive speculum examination in many women. The NHS cannot afford such a 2 stage process.

What is the cervix?

The cervix is sometimes referred to as the neck of the womb and connects the body of the uterus to the vagina.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer begins in the cells lining the cervix. The most common types of cervical cancer are squamous cell and adenocarcinoma. Squamous cells are flat cells covering the cervix and adenomatous cells (glandular cells) are found in the passageway from the cervix to the womb. 80-90% of cervical cancers are squamous cell cancers although it isn’t uncommon to have cervical cancers that have features of both squamous cell and adenocarcinoma cancers, known as adenosquamous carcinomas or “mixed” carcinomas.

The first indications of cervical cancer are usually detected when the cells in the cervix develop changes, known as pre-cancerous changes. Only some pre-cancerous changes develop into cancer and the time it takes for them to do this can vary considerably from less than a year to several years. Cervical cancer screening aims to find these pre-cancerous changes and remove them before they develop into cancer.

What causes cervical cancer?

The most common cause of cervical cancer is the human papilloma virus (HPV) which is spread through sexual contact. There are approximately 100 different types of HPV and only 15 are thought to be responsible for cervical cancer. Of these 15, two in particular, HPV16 and HPV18 are responsible for 70% of all cervical cancers.

There are many risk factors associated with cervical cancer which can increase your chances of developing the disease. See our cervical cancer risk factors page for more information.

Can cervical cancer be prevented?

As a result of discoveries made in the 1970s that established HPV as the cause of the majority of cervical cancers, there is now a vaccine for HPV and, since 2008, all girls between the ages of 12 and 13 have been offered this. However, the vaccine does not offer 100% protection which is why regular screening is still needed.

IHT’s recommended Gynaecologists will be able to give advice to women who test positive for high risk HPV whether vaccination maybe suitable for them.

Currently in the UK women between the ages of 25 and 64 are offered screening for cervical cancer.

Women between the ages of 25 and 49 are called for cervical screening every three years and women between 50 and 64 are offered cervical cancer screening every five years.

Cervial screening involves visiting a local clinic or GP where a small sample of cells is taken from the cervix. This is commonly known as a cervical smear test. This national cervical screening program has largely been responsible for the continuing reduction in mortality from cervical cancers over the last 25 years, however some women find the prospect of an invasive internal procedure off-putting and hence coverage is well below 100%%, and sadly often falling in many areas of the country.

The programme does not screen women under the age of 25 as there is only a very small risk of developing the disease at this early age.

Women can also help to reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer by being aware of the risk factors and taking steps to avoid these where possible. See our page on risk factors for further information.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

If you have abnormal cells in your cervix, it is unlikely you will experience any symptoms of cervical cancer. If, however, the cells have become cancerous you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Bleeding between periods
  • Bleeding after sexual intercourse
  • Smelly vaginal discharge
  • Pain during sex
  • Post-menopausal women may experience vaginal bleeding
  • Pelvic pain

It should be noted that these symptoms can more commonly indicate other conditions but should always be checked out by visiting a Gynaecologist or your GP..

Worried about cervical cancer?

If you are worried about cervical cancer, perhaps you are under 25 and would like screening or just can’t face having a cervical smear test then do get in touch as our GynaeCheck home cervical screening service can help. Contact us on 0800 331 7172 for more information.

* Source: http://www.ncin.org.uk/publications/data_briefings/cervical_incidence_and_screening
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