Six things you should know about cervical cancer

Every day around eight cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in women in the UK. It affects the cells that line the cervix (the narrow entrance to the womb) and is one of the most preventable cancers. But why is it so preventable? And what signs should you look out for? Here are six important things you should know about cervical cancer:

1. Around 99% of cases are caused by infection with human papillomavirus (HPV)

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that spreads through skin to skin contact around your genital area. It causes changes in the cells that line your cervix. These changes don’t cause any symptoms. However, the abnormal cells can develop into cancerous cells.

There are many different strains of HPV, some are more likely to than others to increase your risk of developing cervical cancer. So far, 15 high-risk strains have been identified — of these HPV 16 and HPV 18 increase your risk the most.  

2. The main symptom is irregular bleeding from your vagina but it isn’t the only one

In addition to irregular bleeding, you may also have smelly vaginal discharge, pelvic and/or lower back pain, and pain or discomfort during sex. These symptoms can occur at any age. So although cervical cancer is less common in teenagers, it is important for all girls and women to be aware of the signs to look out for. 

3. Regular smear tests are essential to prevent cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is far less common than it used to be. This is thanks in part to the introduction of a national cervical screening programme, which offers smear tests every three to five years for women aged 25-64. 

A smear test involves a nurse passing a smooth, plastic, tube-shaped tool (a speculum) through your vagina. A soft brush is then used to collect some of the cells lining your cervix. These cells are sent to a lab where they are tested for HPV and analysed for abnormal shape changes. 

Depending on your results, your nurse or doctor will advise you on the next steps. If you have tested positive for HPV and have abnormal cells, you may need to have these cells removed to prevent you from developing cervical cancer. If you don’t have any abnormal cells but have tested positive for HPV, you may need to have another smear test in a year. 

4. It is diagnosed using a painless procedure called a colposcopy

If you have symptoms of cervical cancer or your smear test picked up abnormal cells, you will usually need to have a colposcopy. This involves using a binocular microscope to look at your cervix. If abnormal tissue is detected, a small sample of tissue may be collected (biopsy) from your cervix and sent to a lab for testing. 

5. Smoking increases your risk

Although infection with HPV is the biggest risk factor for cervical cancer, smoking also increases your risk. In fact, smoking increases your risk of several types of cancer.

Other risk factors for cervical cancer include having a weakened immune system, chlamydia infection and long-term use of oral contraceptives. 

6. Treatments vary depending on whether you have pre-cancer or cancer

Pre-cancer treatment — that is, treatment for abnormal cells that are not yet cancerous — can prevent you from developing cervical cancer. This usually involves removing the abnormal cells in a procedure called large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ). This is done as an outpatient procedure during a colposcopy and is performed under local anaesthetic. 

If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, you will most likely need more invasive treatment, such as radical surgery or chemoradiotherapy. The outcomes for treating cervical cancer are good and even better for pre-cancer. 

As with all health conditions, prevention is better than cure, which is why it’s important for all women aged 25-64 to keep up with their regular smear tests