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Cervical Cancer: signs you should not ignore

Treatment and detection of cervical cancer has changed radically in the past 25 years, largely as a result of the national screening programme – but there are still signs we need to be wary of, and act upon immediately.

Following the introduction of the national screening programme in 1988, incidence of cervical cancer dropped dramatically. By 2003-2005 it had decreased by 49% (although there has been a small rise of 8% since). Mortality rates have also decreased by 71% between 1971-1973 and 2010-2012, and it is now estimated that cervical screening prevents around 5,000 deaths each year in the UK.

The key to all successful cancer treatment is early detection. Pre-cancerous cells do not usually present any symptoms, but can be picked up by normal screening and are far easier to treat successfully. Jullien Brady – a Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist and Clinical Advisor for GynaeCheck and Check4Cancer, with extensive experience in the UK cervical screening programme – explains: “We now know how the disease is acquired, who is at risk and that in the vast majority of cases it is a fairly slow growing cancer. It also has very easily identifiable pre-cancerous stages, which allows you to treat it very simply and effectively, potentially years before it becomes cancerous.”

Thanks to these developments, cases of cervical cancer coming to light as a result of symptoms are less common. “These symptoms are perhaps less well-known and understood by the general public than, say, breast lumps or unusual skin lesions, which may also be easier to detect early on. But because they can indicate the presence of cancer, it is essential that women report them to their GP as soon as possible.”

The most common symptom is bleeding from the vagina at times other than when you are having a period. You may have bleeding:

  • Between periods
  • After or during sex
  • At any time if you are past your menopause

Some women also have:

  • A vaginal discharge that smells unpleasant
  • Discomfort or pain during sex

Doctors call pain related to sex dyspareunia, and there are many other conditions that cause these symptoms. Most of them are much more common than cervical cancer, but you should go to your doctor straight away if you have any of these symptoms – the sooner you are treated, the more likely you are to be cured and the less treatment you are likely to need.

Jullien Brady adds: “Prevention is always preferable to cure, and the most important message we need to get across is that cervical cancer is now an almost entirely preventable disease. The methods we use now – with a combination of testing for HPV, which is the virus that is reponsible for almost all cervical cancers, and smear tests themselves – mean that if a woman attends the regular screening when she’s invited, her chances of dying from cervical cancer are almost zero.”

Despite this, cervical cancer has not yet been eradicated. “Since the 1990s we haven’t been able to get the incidence of cervical cancer any lower than around 2,000 cases a year, and that’s almost entirely attributable to women not attending tests. This is where Check4Cancer and GynaeCheck come in, helping to tackle the difficulties some women have attending their smear tests, pioneering tests that are less invasive and which can also be administered at home.”

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