The word cancer can be a ‘scary’ word and people usually prefer not to think about it until they are confronted with a diagnosis. The truth is, certain types of cancer like cervical cancer, are preventable so thinking about it now and taking the necessary precautions could save you from getting it.
As this week marks Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, one of our BGPA directors, Dr Kelly O’Loughlin, shares more light on what cervical cancer is and what you can do to prevent it.
Cervical Cancer is when the cells of your cervix (which is the lowest part of the uterus/womb) become abnormal and grow out of control. Anyone with a cervix can develop cervical cancer, including people who are transgender or non-binary.
Cervical cancer is caused by Human Papillomavirus, commonly referred to as HPV. You can get HPV from any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, vaginal, anal or oral sex and sharing sex toys.
Some of the symptoms of cervical cancer are:
- Vaginal bleeding outside of your normal cycle i.e. bleeding during or after sexual intercourse, bleeding between your periods or bleeding that occurs after you have completed the menopause
- Changes to your vaginal discharge
- Pain during sex or persistent or recurrent pain in your lower pelvis
However, these symptoms do not always mean you have cervical cancer but it is important you speak to your GP if you are experiencing any of the above.
Preventing cervical cancer
You can protect yourself from HPV by using condoms as it limits the chances of skin-to-skin contact. It is important to note that condoms may not cover all the skin around your genitals so they do not fully protect you from HPV transmission.
Also, if you have had the HPV vaccine, it will protect you against the types of HPV that cause most cases of genital warts and cervical cancer. Girls and boys aged 12 to 13 years are offered the HPV vaccine as part of the NHS vaccination programme. If you are eligible and missed your HPV vaccine at school, it is available for free on the NHS up until your 25th birthday for girls born after 1 September 1991 and boys born after 1 September 2006. Regardless of whether you have had the HPV vaccine or not, you should still have a cervical screening when invited.
The best preventative measure one can take is to have regular cervical screening. A cervical screening or smear test checks the health of the cervix. It does not protect you from HPV transmission but it will ensure that any infection is detected early and treated to prevent cervical cancer. If you are aged between ages 25 – 64, you should be invited to attend a cervical screening appointment by letter or if you are unsure if your cervical smear is due, you can check with your GP.
It is a common misconception that people who have not engaged in vaginal penetrative sex do not need cervical screening. If you have ever had any kind of sexual contact including oral or anal sex, sharing sex toys or touching the genital area, you could have HPV and you should still attend your cervical screening appointment.
During your appointment, a sample is taken from your cervix and sent to the lab for testing for high risk types of HPV. If these types of HPV are not found, there is no need for any further tests to be done. If high risk HPV is detected, the sample is then checked for any changes in the cells of your cervix and treatment is started before the cells change and become cancerous.
Although a cervical screening for most is quick and simple, some people may find it unpleasant or even painful. It is important to discuss your concerns with your GP or practice nurse rather than not attending your appointment. The GP or nurse will be able to make some adjustments to ensure your experience is as trouble-free as possible. Remember, cervical screening for HPV is crucial to cervical cancer prevention.
Statistics show that 75% of cervical cancers can be prevented by having cervical screening (Healthwatch Kent, 2022)
Take home message
- Cervical cancer develops over time and is one of the more preventable types of cancers.
- See your GP if you have any unusual symptoms which may suggest you have cervical cancer.
- Finding cancer early means that treatment is likely to be more successful.
- There is a vaccine against HPV for those that are eligible.
- Any sexual contact can pass on HPV and therefore it is important to attend for cervical screening if you have had sexual contact.
- Cervical screening is not a test for cancer but a test to help prevent cancer.
- Don’t ignore your invitation letters – speak to your GP or practice nurse if you are apprehensive or have previously had a bad experience.