While it is impossible to entirely protect yourself against cervical cancer, you can reduce the likelihood of contracting the disease by getting vaccinated. You can also reduce your chances of developing cervical cancer by getting regular smear tests, which identify abnormal cells that have the potential to become cancerous, so that they can be removed as soon as possible.
Cervical cancer is usually associated with certain types of human papillomavirus (types 16 and 18), which are spread during sexual intercourse. Two proven ways of reducing your risk of cervical cancer are having regular smear tests (once sexual activity has started) and having a vaccination against HPV (ideally before you become sexually active). Women who smoke are also twice as likely to have cervical cancer as non-smokers. So stopping smoking may help prevent cervical cancer.
For more information on cervical cancer, see What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer vaccinations
What is a cervical cancer vaccination?
Cervical cancer vaccinations have been proven to significantly reduce a woman’s chance of getting cervical cancer.
The vaccinations aim to provide immunity to the viruses that cause cervical cancer. These types of viruses are called human papillomavirus (HPV), and they can change the DNA in cells within the cervix. This causes the cells to reproduce uncontrollably, creating a tumour.
Two types of HPV, types 16 and 18, are particularly associated with cervical cancer, and both vaccinations provide immunity against them.
The two cervical cancer vaccinations are Gardasil and Cervarix. They are similar to one another, the main difference being that Gardasil, in addition to protecting against cervical cancer, also prevents genital warts in both men and women. This is because Gardasil can protect against HPV types 6 and 11 as well as types 16 and 18. Both vaccines require three separate injections over the course of six months. See What is the difference between Gardasil and Cervarix? for more information.
How does a vaccination prevent cervical cancer?
Both Cervarix and Gardasil are made from non-infectious HPV proteins (Cervarix is made from types 16 and 18, while Gardasil is made from types 6, 11, 16 and 18). When either vaccine is given, the body produces antibodies to attack the newly introduced proteins (which behave like the relevant strains of HPV without actually causing infection). If you are later exposed to HPV, these previously activated antibodies will quickly identify the virus and begin to attack it, preventing it from entering and infecting your cells.
The vaccines cannot cause cancer or other HPV related illnesses because they do not contain any live virus.
How can I get a cervical cancer vaccination?
You can request a cervical cancer vaccination from your GP or from our online service. If you choose to order it online, you will be asked to fill out a questionnaire to enable our doctors to assess your suitability for the vaccination. Then, you will be able to choose at which of our vaccinating LloydsPharmacy stores you wish to receive the injections. You will have to have three injections over the course of six months.
Cervical cancer smear tests
What is a smear test?
Smear tests, otherwise known as cervical screens or Pap tests, detect abnormal cells in the cervix which have the potential to become cancerous. Most test results come back normal, but around 1 in 20 will show some abnormality in the cells.
Most of these abnormal cells pose no risk, but in some cases they will need to be removed to prevent them becoming cancerous.
How can I get a smear test?
All women who are sexually active should get regular smear tests, as this will significantly reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer. In most of the UK these are provided free on the NHS if you are between the ages of 25 and 65 (in Scotland the age range is 20-60). See the NHS website for more information.
If you are of the appropriate age, you should receive a letter through the post asking you to make an appointment for a cervical screening test. It is important not to ignore this, but to have regular smear tests in order to catch any possible cancerous cells at the earliest possible stage.