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Can cervical cancer be avoided?

Cancer Research UK has found that 99.8% of cases of cervical cancer are avoidable. Learn more about the symptoms of cervical cancer, as well as how to spot them.

The number of cases of cervical cancer has virtually halved since the 90s. Thanks to national screening programmes, death rates have fallen by almost two-thirds in the past 30 years. However, recent figures have indicated that screening uptake is at its lowest in decades. In 2018, three million women hadn’t had a smear test in over three and a half years.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer develops within a woman’s cervix, incidence rates in the UK are highest in females aged 25-29. Abnormal cells will start to grow in an uncontrolled way in the lining of your cervix which, if undetected, can also spread to other parts of your body, most commonly the lungs, liver and bladder.

As cervical cancer is a relatively slow-growing cancer, there is often a high chance of successful treatment before it causes serious problems, if diagnosed early.

Who’s at risk of cervical cancer?

Research tells us that over 99% of cervical cancers are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) infection, two strains of this are responsible for 75% of all cervical cancers in Europe. More than half of diagnoses are in the under 50s demographic of the population.   

However, Consultant Gynaecological Oncologist Adeola Olaitan explains “The important thing to remember is most women who get HPV will not get cervical cancer, as their immune system fights off the virus.”

Cervical cancer symptoms

Although there are no symptoms in the early stages of cervical cancer, over time, you may be at risk if you have experienced any of the following symptoms:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods, after sex or after the menopause

  • Smelly discharge

  • Pain during sex

  • Pain in your lower back or pelvis

Other conditions can cause these symptoms, but it’s worth getting them checked as, caught early, cervical cancer is very treatable.

Make an appointment with your GP or Benenden Health members can access our GP 24/7 service from day one of membership.

How to lower your risk of cervical cancer

There are many things you can proactively do to reduce your risk of cervical cancer.

  • Stop smoking – people who smoke are less likely to be able to remove the HPV infection from their body which could develop into cancer. If you need tips on quitting - see our tips on how to stop smoking

  • Practice safe sex – Nearly all cases of cervical cancer can be traced back to a type of HPV virus, which can be spread through unprotected sex, although this does not completely eliminate the risk

  • Cervical cancer vaccination – all 12-13 year olds (school year eight), male and female will be offered the HPV vaccine on the NHS. Those who are eligible but have missed their vaccine should contact their GP provider as they can still be vaccinated up to the age of 25 years

  • Cervical screening (smear test) – regular screening allows a specialist to identify abnormal changes in cells within the cervix

Smear tests and cervical cancer

It’s important never to ignore your invitation for a smear test. It detects early changes to your cervix, so you can be treated to prevent cancer developing.

Smear tests only take a few minutes and they could save your life. To learn more about what happens during a smear test, cervical cancer charity Jo’s Trust have put together a helpful guide.

Are smear tests painful?

Some women are concerned that a smear test could be painful. Smear tests should never be painful; however, some do feel a slight discomfort.

If you have any concerns, or a negative experience, do discuss this with your nurse to ensure a less stressful process.

How can I make a smear test more comfortable?

If you are worried about feeling pain or having an uncomfortable experience during a smear test, there are a few measures that you can take to reduce any stress or worry you may experience prior to your appointment.

  • Wear comfortable clothes

  • Ask for a female clinician

  • Time your appointment when you are not on your period – it is best to arrange your appointment in the middle or towards the end of your cycle

  • Take painkillers before if necessary – although not normally required, if you believe it would help, take paracetamol before your appointment

  • Ask for more time if required – you will be able to book a double appointment if you feel like you may need more time

What age can I get screened for cervical cancer?

Cervical screening begins at 25 and continues until 64. A screening aims to look at early changes that could, if left untreated, develop into cervical cancer.

Between the ages of 25 and 49 you will get an invite every three years, with this changing to every five years after that up until the age of 64.

In order to get an invite to a cervical cancer screening, you must be registered with a GP.

HPV vaccine & cervical cancer

Since 2008 there has been an HPV vaccination programme for girls aged 12 and 13. Since September 2019 the programme also covers boys to help to protect them from HPV related cancers in men.

The HPV programme consists of two vaccines with the first at 12 or 13 and the second one 6-12 months later. Those children and young adults who missed the vaccine can get protected up until their 25th birthday. It is essential that they receive both vaccines in order to be fully protected against the HPV viruses.

The vaccines cover 4 strains of HPV - two which account for 70% of cervical cancers and two which account for 90% of genital warts. 

According to government statistics from 2018, 80% of 15-24-year-old girls and women have received the vaccine, which helps to protect them from cervical cancer. 

Cervical cancer treatment

Depending on the stage your cervical cancer is diagnosed depends on the treatment options available. There are currently 5 standard methods of treatment:

  • Surgery – removing a cancerous tumour during an operation

  • Radiation therapy – the use of x-rays or other radiation to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing

  • Targeted therapy – using drugs to identify and attack cancerous cells without damaging unaffected cells

  • Chemotherapy – drugs either injected into the bloodstream or a specific region of the body depending on the stage of the cancer being treated

  • Immunotherapy – using the patients’ immune system to fight the cancer by boosting the body’s natural defences

However, it is important to understand that there are new treatment types being tested in clinical trials. Patients taking part in these trials may want to consider any possible side effects that new, untested treatments may cause and be aware that follow up tests may be required after treatment.

How can Benenden Health help you?

Benenden Health Provides Access To GP 24/7, Physio and Private Diagnosis & Treatment. Benenden Health Is The Affordable Alternative To Health Insurance.

Please note: Benenden Health do not replicate services that the NHS already provides speedy care for. See a full list of procedures we cover.

Medically reviewed by Cheryl Lythgoe on 3rd February 2020. Next review date: 3rd February 2021.