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Can cervical cancer be prevented?

Cancer Research 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, 3 million women hadn’t had a smear test in over 3 and a half years.

Who’s at risk?

More than half of diagnoses are in the under 50s. Doctors now know that it’s caused in part by the human papilloma virus (HPV). “The virus is so common that almost everyone who’s had sex has been exposed,” explains Consultant Gynaecological Oncologist Adeola Olaitan. “The important thing to remember is most women who get HPV will not get cervical cancer, as their immune system fights off the virus.”

How to lower your risk

“If you smoke, make an effort to give up, as it weakens your immune system and significantly increases your risk of HPV developing into cervical cancer,” says Olaitan. Research has also found the risk doubles if taking the pill for five years or more. When having sexual intercourse, consistent condom use appears to offer relatively good protection from HPV infections.

Cervical cancer symptoms

“The key thing to look out for is abnormal vaginal bleeding between periods, after sex or after the menopause,” says Olaitan. “Some women also notice smelly discharge at any time of the month or pain during sex. All sorts of other conditions can cause these symptoms, but it’s worth getting them checked as, caught early, cervical cancer is very treatable.”

Benenden Health members can discuss any symptoms that they're concerned about on the 24/7 GP helpline.

Take action

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 usually 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.

Some women are concerned that a smear test could be painful. Smears should never be painful, however some do feel a slight discomfort. If you have any concerns, or have had a negative past experience, do discuss this with your nurse to ensure a less stressful process. Remember that if you’re worried there are ways to make a smear test more comfortable.

Cervical screening begins at 25 and continues until 64. Plus, since 2008 there has been an HPV vaccination programme for girls aged 12 and 13. “The vaccine can help prevent two strains of HPV infection, but not if you’ve already been exposed – hence why it’s given to girls before they’re sexually active,” says Olaitan. The vaccine covers 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. Since September 2019, the vaccine has also been offered to boys aged 12-13, to decrease sexual contact spread and to help to protect from HPV related cancers in men.

Visit our Women's Health Hub for more articles on women's health, including women hair loss, ovarian cancer, things that happen to your breasts as you age and many more.

If you’re concerned about any potential symptoms, you can make an appointment to see your GP. Alternatively, if you are a Benenden Health member, you can call our helpline for medical advice from a qualified UK-based GP, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Learn more about GP 24/7 Helpline