Cervical cancer and its symptoms
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that develops in a woman’s cervix, the neck of the womb. Though cervical cancer is fairly uncommon - around 850 women died from cervical cancer in 2017, while 11,700 died from breast cancer - and has a good rate of survival, especially if caught early enough, it is still important for women to familiarise themselves with the disease and its symptoms.
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 grow 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 cervical cancer cases. Cervical cancer vaccinations are designed to provide immunity to HPV types 16 and 18, among others.
- 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 five 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
How many types of cervical cancer are there?
There are two main types of cervical cancer, named after the kinds of cell that become cancerous:
- Squamous cell cancer - squamous cells are flat, skin-like cells that cover the outer surface of the cervix. Squamous cell cancer makes up 70 to 80% of all cervical cancer cases.
- Adenocarcinoma - adenomatous cells are mucus-producing glands that sit in the passageway from the cervix to the womb. Adenocarcinoma makes up 10 to 15% of cervical cancer cases and can be more difficult to detect.
In rare cases, other types of cancer such as lymphoma can occur in the cervix.
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.
You should contact your GP if you have:
- bleeding after sex
- bleeding outside your normal periods
- bleeding after you have gone through menopause
- Other early signs of cervical cancer may include pain and discomfort during sex, and a smelly vaginal discharge.
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.
Symptoms indicating the spread of cervical cancer
If the cancerous cells spread into the surrounding tissue and organs (including the bladder, bowel and liver) this can lead to other symptoms.
Symptoms of this spread can include:
- bloody urine
- unusual changes to your bowel movements
- bone pain
In some cases, a cervical cancer can block and interfere with your kidney function, leading to swelling and thus severe pain in your back and sides.
Again, these symptoms in isolation do not necessarily point to cancer, however it is still important to visit your doctor if you have any concerning symptoms.
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 (this is every five years in Scotland and Wales). Visit the NHS website more information about cervical cancer screening and its importance.
It is important to note that even if abnormal cells are found on your cervix, this does not necessarily mean that you have cervical cancer or will ever develop cervical cancer. Some women can contract a strain of HPV that is known to cause cervical cancer and never suffer ill health as a result.
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 Gardasil 9 through our LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor consultation, request the treatment, select your local LloydsPharmacy and pay for the treatment online. Your suitability for the vaccine will then be assessed by one of our clinicians, and if deemed appropriate they will prescribe the vaccine. At this stage you must call your chosen pharmacy and arrange your appointment.
You can also request the vaccination from selected LloydsPharmacy stores and book your appointment online. Find out more about how the in-store service works by visiting their HPV vaccination service pages.
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.