Cancer – it’s never a nice word, but the reality is that half of all women will develop some form of it at some point in their life. The good news? At least 3,000 cancer diagnoses in the UK could be avoided each year.
Cervical cancer in the UK
Unlike many cancers, cervical cancer is largely preventable. The mortality rate from cervical cancer has declined substantially from the late 1970s onwards, but it is by no means a solved problem.
In comparison to women’s cancers which receive extensive research and funding – such as breast cancer – the risk for women with cervical cancer is arguably higher, and the same level of diagnosis and treatment has not yet been achieved.
What’s more, even though a national cervical cancer screening programme exists, a growing number of women are not taking the smear test – 1 million women failed to attend between 2013 and 2014 alone. Research carried out by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust revealed that 20% of women see the smear test as unnecessary, and many women do not attend screenings out of embarrassment.
In the words of Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, ‘embarrassment should never be a barrier to better health’. The key message of her December 2015 report on women’s health is that we need to remove the taboos surrounding women’s health issues. In the case of a preventable disease like cervical cancer, this message is more poignant than ever.
So, how will you protect against cervical cancer this year?
What causes cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). It is spread through intimate sexual contact, as well as from mother to baby immediately after birth.
This highly-contagious virus is extremely common – it’s estimated that 80% of the world’s population will contract a form of it at least once in their life – but most people don’t even realise that they have it.
HPV comes in over 100 different forms which affect the body in different ways. Some ‘high-risk’ HPV strands can lead to abnormal tissue growth, resulting in cancers, genital warts and verrucas, to name a few.
In most cases, HPV is harmless and will be cleared by your immune system within two years of contraction. However, 15 types of HPV can lead to cervical cancer and remain symptomless until the cancer establishes itself.
Cervical cancer symptoms
Early detection and treatment can prevent cervical cancer developing in around 75% of cases. Luckily, there are a few symptoms you can watch out for:
- Abnormal bleeding after or during sex
- Bleeding between periods
- Post-menopausal bleeding (if you are not on HRT)
- Unusual or unpleasant vaginal discharge
- Discomfort or pain during sex
How can I protect myself against cervical cancer?
Unlike most cancers, Cervical Cancer is a preventable disease.
As of 2008, the government’s HPV immunisation programme was set up in schools for girls aged between 12 and 18. Those who aren’t eligible for HPV vaccines on the NHS can get them through our HPV Vaccination Service.
Regular Smear Tests
Not going for cervical screening is one of the biggest risk factors for developing cervical cancer, and an estimated 4,500 lives per year could be saved by cervical screening.
Screening allows any abnormal cell changes to be picked up before they can develop into cancer.
As part of the National Cervical Screening Programme, if you are aged between 25 and 64 and are registered with the NHS, you will receive an invitation via the post to take a cervical smear test every 3 to 5 years.
Even if you have had the HPV vaccination, you should still have regular smear tests to ensure you are protected against other cancerous forms of HPV.
Am I too old to get the HPV vaccine?
Cervical cancer and the HPV vaccine are not just a health concern for the young. As the most common cancer for women under 35, and with 50% of cervical cancer deaths occurring in women over 65, cervical cancer is a health concern for women of all ages.
Whilst you can only get the vaccine on the NHS up to the age of 18, there is no age limit on getting the vaccine itself.
Since HPV is mainly spread via sexual contact, it is advised that girls get the vaccine before they become sexually active – and thus exposed to HPV.
It is assumed that women above the age of 18 may have had sexual exposure to HPV, which could limit the effectiveness of the vaccine. However, this does not mean you can’t get the HPV vaccine if you’re over 18.
I’ve had sex. Am I still eligible for the HPV vaccine?
Yes – having a sexual history does not immediately discount you from getting the HPV vaccine.
The only thing to be aware of is that sexual exposure will increase your likelihood of already having contracted HPV.
It’s still safe to get a vaccine even if you already have HPV, but the vaccine will not treat the infection. Women who have already had sex are still encouraged to get the HPV vaccine, as it could still protect you against high-risk forms of HPV that you may not have contracted.
The HPV vaccine is most effective when taken before you become sexually active, but you are still able to get it at any point of your sexual life.
I didn’t go to school in the UK. Can I still get the HPV vaccine?
Whether you’re a foreign student at a British university, employee on a work placement, or you simply didn’t attend a UK school from 2008 onwards, you are still able to get the HPV vaccine.
Our HPV Vaccination Service was specifically designed to extend access to the HPV vaccine to those who can’t get it under the NHS.
Can men get the HPV vaccine?
Yes, they can – the dangers of HPV are by no means limited to women.
By getting the vaccine, men can protect themselves against a whole host of HPV-related problems. This includes reducing the risk of developing anal and throat cancers amongst men who have sex with men.
HPV vaccines can offer protection to men – regardless of sexuality – against some of the 40 types of HPV that affect the genital area (goodbye genital warts!).
The NHS does not currently offer men any protection against HPV, although the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is currently looking into extending the provision of the HPV vaccine to boys and men.
For those men who can’t wait for a policy change, you can get the HPV vaccine now via our HPV Vaccination Service.