JANUARY is Cervical Cancer Awareness month. In Northern Ireland there are about 80 females diagnosed and 20-30 deaths from cervical cancer each year. Cervical Cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35 years of age and the eleventh most common cancer among women in the UK. Overall two out of every 100 cancers diagnosed in women are Cervical Cancers. Survival is around 77% five years after diagnosis.
It is important that you attend cervical screening even if you do not have any symptoms of cervical cancer. Signs and symptoms of Cervical Cancer may include discomfort or pain during sex, abnormal vaginal bleeding usually between periods, after or during sex or at any time after the menopause. Other symptoms may include an unpleasant smelling vaginal discharge.
Pre-cancerous cell changes do not always have any symptoms which is why it is important to have a smear. There may be other conditions that cause these symptoms and are much more common than Cervical Cancer, but you should attend your GP straight away. If you do have Cervical Cancer, the sooner you are treated, the more likely you are cured and usually the less treatment you will need
Cervical screening can help to stop Cervical Cancer from developing, as it is one of the few cancers that is preventable as pre-cancerous cell changes in the cervix (neck of the womb) can be detected before they develop into cancer. Therefore, ‘EARLY DETECTION CAN SAVE LIVES’.
Cervical screening involves taking a sample of cells (a smear) from the cervix with a small brush. It is available for all females aged 25-49 years every three years, and for women aged 50-64 years of age every five years. Women who have registered with a GP should be invited to attend for screening routinely, but if you have not been invited, you should contact your GP to make arrangements. Over half of females who are diagnosed with Cervical Cancer in Northern Ireland have never had a smear test or have not attended regularly for five years or more. In a well screened population, four out of five Cervical Cancers will be prevented.
It is important that the risk factors for Cervical Cancer are highlighted as PREVENTION IS KEY. Most women are aware that having sex at an early age and having several sexual partners can increase the risk of Cervical Cancer. The main risk factors of Cervical Cancer are the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which is the main cause of the main types of Cervical Cancer. There are over a 100 types of HPV and up to 80% of people in the UK are infected with the HPV virus at some time during their life, but for most people the virus causes no harm and goes away without treatment. Anyone who is sexually active can contract HPV through contact with someone who already has the virus. The HPV vaccination which is offered to all girls aged 12 to 18 can prevent infection from two of the highest risk strains of HPV that cause Cervical Cancer, reducing the risk by over 70 %.
If you have had the HPV vaccination, you still should attend for cervical screening. Other risk factors include a weakened immune system caused by smoking, poor diet and infections such as HIV or AIDS. Long-term use of the oral contraceptive pill can slightly increase the risk of developing Cervical Cancer, but the benefits outweigh the risks for most women.