What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer develops in a woman’s cervix (the entrance to the womb), and is the most common cancer in women under 35 in the UK. According to Cancer Research, there are 3 cervical cancer deaths for every 100,000 women in the UK.
What causes cervical cancer?
In most cases, cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) which is usually spread through sexual intercourse. This virus changes the structure of DNA in cells within the cervix (this is known as a mutation). The cells begin to reproduce uncontrollably, producing a lump of tissue known as a tumour.
HPV is actually a group of viruses, rather than just one virus. There are over 100 different types, but types 16 and 18 carry the highest risk of cervical cancer: they are associated with 70% of all of cervical cancer cases. Cervical cancer vaccinations are designed to provide immunity to HPV types 16 and 18.
Certain factors can increase a woman’s chance of developing cervical cancer. According to the NHS, these include:
- smoking - women who smoke are twice as likely to develop cervical cancer than those who do not
- taking an oral contraceptive pill for more than 5 years - again, women who do this may be twice as likely to develop cervical cancer
- having a weakened immune system, for example after taking certain medications such as immunosuppressants
- having children - the more children you have, the greater the risk of getting cervical cancer
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
There may be no symptoms at all in the early stages of cervical cancer, which is why it’s very important for all sexually active women to get regular screening tests.
In the majority of cases, unusual vaginal bleeding is the first noticeable symptom of cervical cancer. This is often noticed after sex. If you have any kind of unusual vaginal bleeding you should consult your GP. Other early signs of cervical cancer may include pain and discomfort during sex, and a smelly vaginal discharge.
You should contact your GP if you have:
- bleeding after sex
- bleeding outside your normal periods
- bleeding after you have gone through menopause
There are many reasons for unusual vaginal bleeding, and it does not necessarily mean that you have cervical cancer. However, it is best to have it investigated by your GP.
How is cervical cancer treated?
This depends on the extent of the cancer when it’s diagnosed. Laser treatment, surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy are all used and the exact treatment will depend on your individual case. Early cervical cancer is often treated completely successfully.
Smear tests (see below) are not designed to detect or treat cancer, but rather to find abnormal cells which have the potential to become cancerous. These abnormal cells may need to be removed to prevent them becoming cancerous.
How can cervical cancer be prevented?
You can reduce your chances of getting cervical cancer in several ways:
1. Get regular smear tests
Regular cervical screening is the best way to identify abnormal cells early on and remove them if necessary. It is important to have smear tests even if you have been vaccinated against HPV (see below), as the vaccination does not provide 100% immunity.
A cervical screening test (also known as a Pap test or a smear test) is a way of detecting abnormal cells in a woman’s cervix. Detecting and removing these cells is an effective way of preventing cervical cancer, and women who are sexually active should get a smear test every three years. Visit the NHS website more information about cervical cancer screening and its importance.
2. Get a cervical cancer vaccination
Gardasil 9 reduces the risk of cervical cancer by up to 89%. The vaccine works by giving immunity against the most harmful types of HPV - 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58. You can order this here.
3. Practice safe sex
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by infection with HPV, which is usually spread during sex. Using a condom can therefore reduce your chances of becoming infected. The earlier you start having sex and the more sexual partners you have will both increase the chance of becoming infected with HPV.
However, HPV is extremely common, and even people who practise safe sex often become infected. This is why vaccinations and smear tests are so important.