In the UK, up to nine women a day are diagnosed with cervical cancer. On average, a third of these women lose their lives to the disease.
The peak ages for this type of cancer are 30 to 34 and the incidence of it rises from the age of 25. Regular smear tests are available to women once they are 25 as well as HPV vaccinations, and there are effective treatments for the disease.
This week it’s Cervical Cancer Prevention Week so the Standard spoke to Dr Jan Schaefer, chief medical officer at Medigo, to find out more about detecting early signs.
What are the earliest signs of cervical cancer?
During the early stages of cervical cancer, you may not see any symptoms at all.
Dr Schaefer explained: “The first to appear are typically unusual discharge or bleeding. As the cancer progresses, some other subtle signs might include constipation, blood in the urine, loss of appetite or fatigue. However, it is important to note that these signs alone are not indicative of cancer but, if they are, they won’t be warning signs but symptoms of the cancer progressing.
“This is why it is so important to attend your screenings regularly. In the UK, screenings are routinely offered to women from the age of 25 and repeated every three years.”
Below are six symptoms of cervical cancer.
1. Vaginal discharge that is unusual in terms of smell, colour or amount
2. Abnormal bleeding between periods
3. Bleeding after intercourse
4. Increased menstrual bleeding
5. Pelvic pain
6. Pain during intercourse
While these symptoms don’t necessarily point to cervical cancer, they are reason enough to see your GP.
What should you do if you think you have cervical cancer?
The first thing you need to do is make an appointment with your GP.
Dr Schaefer said: “The GP can then conduct a screening, which means that any cell changes can be caught before they become cancerous, or at the earliest stages.
“In the UK, the NHS offers cervical screening for women aged between 25 and 49 every three years, while women aged between 50 and 64 can be screened every five years. Those aged over 65 who have been screened in the past no longer need to be screened.
“A pap screening allows the doctor to test for any cell changes and deal with potential cancerous cells before they become cancerous, while an HPV test screens for the most common risk factor for cervical cancer, HPV. This is a sexually transmitted infection that can lead to cell changes and eventually to cancer. An HPV test can also be used in cases where a pap screening is inconclusive.”
How to book a cervical screening
You'll be sent an invitation letter in the post when it's time to book your cervical screening appointment. The letter will tell you where you can go for cervical screening and how to book.
Most cervical screening is done in a GP surgery by a female nurse or doctor. In some parts of England, you may be able to go to a local sexual health clinic instead.
Try to book your appointment as soon as you get invited. If you missed your last cervical screening, you do not need to wait for a letter.
It's best to book an appointment for a time when:
you're not having a period – also try to avoid the two days before or after you bleed (if you do not have periods, you can book any time)
you have finished treatment if you have unusual vaginal discharge or a pelvic infection
Is there any way to prevent cervical cancer?
While there is no way to completely prevent cervical cancer, there are some things you can do to decrease your chances of developing it.
“Girls between the ages of 12 and 13 are offered the cervical cancer vaccination, which protects against four types of HPV,” Dr Schaefer said. “While the vaccine doesn’t guarantee that you will never develop the cancer, it does reduce the risks.
“Practising safe sex can also decrease your chances of developing cervical cancer, as HPV, spread through sex and sexual contact, is linked to cervical cancer. Lastly, smoking can increase your risks of developing cervical cancer, for smokers are less able to rid the body of the HPV infection.”
If you think you might have symptoms relating to cervical cancer, make an appointment with your GP