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Dating after divorce and flirty fifties sees rise in cervical cancer in sixties. Could divorce be to blame for the rise in cervical cancer?

- New research reveals 40 somethings are ignoring a virus as they wrongly think cervical cancer is a young women’s disease 

- Knowledge gap amongst women in their 40s could be putting their health at risk 

One in five new cervical cancer cases are diagnosed in women in their 60s, but new research[ii] still shun screening of one of the only preventable cancers.

The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is the cause of around 99.7% of cervical cancers and increased exposure to high-risk strains of the virus (HR-HPV) in 40-something women means cases in the 60+ age group are on the rise. The virus can take 10 or more years to present as cervical abnormalities.

 Leading UK gynaecologist, Mr. Jullien Brady, explains, ‘Social changes such as higher divorce rates, new relationships and a more liberal attitude to sex mean women over 40 are being exposed to the HPV virus more than ever.’

New research by GynaeHealth UK found that 60% of 40-64 year olds have no idea what HPV is. When asked how they could avoid catching the virus, 15% of 40-64 year old women stated washing after sex could stop the spread.

HPV is an extremely common virus that is spread through sexual contact including vaginal, oral and anal sex.

‘Many women aren’t aware that the HPV virus can be transmitted through sexual activity even when using protection,’ explains Mr Brady. ‘HPV can be spread via skin to skin genital contact, penetrative sex and even by using sex toys.’

‘Cervical cancer is often considered a ‘young women’s’ disease, and many women over 40 wrongly believe they no longer need to participate in cervical screening. The HPV virus can lay dormant for years and if women go through a divorce, start dating and have new partners in their 40s, they expose themselves to HPV again and if high risk strains are present, this can turn into cervical cancer 10 to 15 years down the line, so it is important to keep screening.’

NHS statistics released in December 2015 revealed the largest decline in attendance at cervical screening was amongst women aged 40-54. According to the new GynaeHealth UK research, pain and embarrassment were the main barriers to smear tests. 70% said it was uncomfortable and one in ten claimed the experience was traumatic.

Mr. Brady continues, ‘The obstacles to screening aren’t always due to lifestyle factors such as struggling to find time or being unable to fit appointments around work – which many younger women cite as the reason they delay or skip cervical screening. For many 40+ women there are also physical barriers including menopausal symptoms like vaginal dryness that cause women to shy away from screening.’

For those who cannot overcome the barriers, or whose social or work commitments prevent them from attending their smear tests, there is now the option to self-screen for high risk HPV.

GynaeCheck is a device, inserted in the same way as a tampon and is smaller than the speculum device, which makes it more comfortable than a smear test. The device rinses the cervix with sterile water which is recollected and tested for high-risk strains of HPV known to lead to cervical cancer.

In just three seconds, the self-sampling process is complete without the use of speculum or ‘scraping’ which makes traditional smear tests uncomfortable for many women. The sample is returned to a state-of-the art laboratory via post to be tested for the presence of high risk HPV. For those women who test positive for high risk HPV, GynaeHealth UK prompts women to re-engage with NHS cervical screening where further testing may be recommended. For those who don’t carry high risk HPV, they are reassured that they are at a low risk of developing cervical cancer, and are advised to continue screening.

Research by Jo’s Trust found that 54% of women who had delayed cervical screening would prefer to self-sample, meaning GynaeCheck could help more women keep up-to-date with cervical screening.

The move towards HPV testing as the primary method of screening is one supported by the UK National Screening Committee, who proposed the change in screening in January this year. The change could would mean only those samples with HPV would be tested for abnormal cells. 

Mr. Jullien Brady comments, ‘The benefit of HPV screening is that women can discover more information regarding their cervical cancer risk. Cervical cancer is considered a preventable cancer, meaning early detection can prevent the disease developing. If all women engage in screening, we could beat cervical cancer and save the number of lives lost to the disease.’

NHS screening starts at the age of 25 and women are invited to screen every three years until the of 45, when women are invited every five years until the age of 64

[ii] HSCIC statistics, released December 2015

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