Cervical Cancer Prevention Week

Cancer under the microscope










This week (Jan 21-27,2019) is cervical cancer prevention week, but recent figures show that screening is at a 21-year low in the UK, with almost 1 in 3 women missing, avoiding or delaying their appointment.

What causes cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is almost always caused by HPV (human papillomavirus), of which there are 100 different types. HPV affects the moist membranes lining the body, for example, your mouth, anus, and cervix. As the virus is usually symptomless, the only way to see if you’re affected is by being screened. HPV is passed on through skin to skin contact, so you don’t even need to have penetrative sex to contract the virus. Whilst condoms can lower your chances, they don’t completely prevent HPV due to the fact that skin to skin contact can still happen.

The virus can cause abnormal changes to the cells in the cervix, which have the potential to turn cancerous, which is why it is strongly recommended that you go for a cervical screening once every 3-5 years. Around 5% of women are found to have abnormal changes, though most of these cases don’t turn to cancer and the cells can go back to normal on their own. However, there is a real risk of developing cervical cancer if you decide against an examination.

There are roughly 3,000 diagnoses per year, with it proving fatal for around 900. These upsetting figures caused the government to offer the HPV vaccine to all year 8 girls nationwide in the hopes of preventing cervical cancer for the future. In addition to this, all women aged 25-64 are offered a cervical screening every 3-5 years depending on age, with screening rates spiking just after the death of Reality-TV star, Jade Goody.

Cervical cancer reaction

Why are smear test figures so low?

With the government making sure that all of these measures are in place, why are the most recent screening figures so low? Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust conducted a survey to find out why women were missing or delaying their appointments, finding that many were skipping their screening out of embarrassment over:

  • Body shape
  • Vulva appearance
  • Anxious of smell
  • Not having waxed

Self-consciousness is bound to be heightened at a time like this when you’re showing your body to a complete stranger, but these strangers are absolutely not going to notice anything like the above (and if they do notice an unusual smell, which is pretty rare, they’ll likely just point you in the direction of some advice). Doctors and nurses only worry about you getting the best care, so our advice is to try not to let embarrassment stop you from booking your smear test.

It can sound scary, especially if you have an image of the old-style metal speculums in your head, but most women don’t find the smear test painful at all. A small, plastic speculum is placed internally, and the nurse then inserts a brush to collect cervical cells. Whilst it might be uncomfortable, the whole process normally only takes 5 minutes, and the results are often back within a fortnight. If abnormal cells are detected in your results, the good news is that they can normally be removed to prevent them from becoming cancerous. A hysterectomy can be avoided if the cells are found early enough, but if a smear test is avoided and HPV has advanced, it can lead to infertility or early menopause as a result of more rigorous treatment.


What are the signs of cervical cancer?

The main sign of cervical cancer is noticing abnormal bleeding (different to what you’re normally used to). However, abnormal vaginal bleeding can be a symptom of many different conditions, meaning it doesn’t necessarily indicate cancer, though all abnormal bleeding should be checked by your GP. On top of this, other signs include:

  • Unpleasant discharge
  • Low back pain
  • Incontinence
  • Constipation
  • Going to the toilet more often
  • Swelling of the legs

I’m still nervous about my smear test

If you’re still worried about your smear test, you can request a female doctor in advance if that makes you feel more comfortable, or you can even bring someone with you to your appointment to put you at ease and distract you. The first smear test is often the most nerve-wracking as you don’t know what to expect, but the whole process is as dignified as it can be, with you having the privacy you need to undress/redress, and if you have any questions or need more information, your nurse will be happy to answer and explain. The bottom line is that cervical cancer is preventable as long as you attend your smear tests, so if you’re overdue or have any concerns, book your appointment as soon as possible.