Cervical cancer is the 14th most common cancer among women in the UK, with around 3,200 women diagnosed each year.
During Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, charities and experts are urging women to get screened and familiarise themselves with the symptoms in order to give them the best chance of catching it early.
Last year, it was reported that NHS figures revealed the number of women who were not being screened for cervical cancer reached its highest proportion in a decade, with about 4.6 million women aged 24 to 64 in England having never been screened or were not up to date with testing.
But according to Cancer Research UK, cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers in the UK, with 99.8% of them being preventable. The charity says that 99.8% of UK cases are caused by infections from certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), while 21% are caused by smoking.
Alexandra Penk, litigation executive for Patient Claim Line, tells Yahoo UK what the red flag symptoms of cervical cancer are that women need to watch out for.
What is cervical cancer?
This is a type of cancer that is found anywhere in the cervix, which is a tunnel-like organ that connects the vagina and the womb.
It occurs when abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix grow in an uncontrolled way. The disease mainly affects women under the age of 34, but anyone with a cervix can get cervical cancer.
Penk explains: “Cervical cancer is not thought to be hereditary. In 99.7% of cases, cervical cancers are caused by persistent infections with a virus called high-risk HPV, according to the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.”
“HPV is a very common virus transmitted through skin to skin contact in the genital area. According to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, around four in every five sexually active adults (80%) will be infected with some type of HPV in their lives. However, for the majority of women this will not result in cervical cancer. While HPV infection is common, cervical cancer is quite rare.”
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
There are several symptoms that may suggest you have cervical cancer.
Pain in the pelvis
Pain in the lower back or lower tummy
Pain or discomfort during sex
Changes to vaginal discharge
Unusual vaginal bleeding between periods, during or after sex, or after menopause
The NHS caveats that these symptoms are common and can be caused by a number of different conditions. Having them does not confirm you have cervical cancer, but you should get checked by a GP if you experience any symptoms.
Penk adds: “Ultimately, not everyone diagnosed with cervical cancer will display symptoms, so it’s crucial to attend regular cervical screening assessments.”
Watch:Ask an Expert - What to Know About HPV
How can cervical cancer be prevented?
Experts emphasise the importance of attending your regular screening, as catching cervical cancer early increases the chances of treating it successfully.
Being aware of the symptoms of cervical cancer and seeking medical advice if you experience any symptoms is also crucial.
Young girls aged 11 to 18 should take up the HPV vaccination if offered, Penk adds. It’s also important to talk to family and friends to ensure they know how they can reduce their risk and prevent it from occurring.
“[People should] know where to find support locally and further information which will be widely available at your GP and family planning clinic,” she says.
“This is why it’s so important to raise awareness of cervical cancer, so people can take the right steps to prevent it where possible.”
Who can get a cervical cancer screening?
The NHS cervical screening programme is open to women aged between 25 and 64, and is also available for anyone in this age range who has a cervix, including trans men and non-binary people.
For people living in England and Northern Ireland, you should receive an invite every three years if you are within this age range. If you are aged between 50 and 64, you should receive an invite every five years.
If you live in Scotland or Wales, you will be invited for a screening every five years if you are between 25 and 64 years old.
What happens during the screening?
Screening tests for HPV are also known as a “smear test”.
During the test, a GP or nurse will ask you to take your trousers or skirt, and underwear off behind a screen, and a sheet will be placed over you to cover you.
They may then look at the outside of your vagina (the vulva) and feel inside of your vagina with two fingers while pressing on your tummy and wearing gloves.
They may also insert a smooth, tube-shaped tool known as a speculum into your vagina so they can see your cervix, and take a sample of cells from it using a small, soft brush. The sample will then be sent to a laboratory.
“If you test positive for HPV, you will be invited for a colposcopy to examine your cervix more closely,” Penk explains.
“If there are no cell changes, you will be invited for a cervical screening sooner than usual - around a year.”
Treatment for cervical cancer
The type of treatment that will be recommended for cervical cancer depends on the size and type of cervical cancer you have, where it is and if it has spread, and your general health.
According to the NHS website, it will usually include surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. It may also include treatment with targeted medicines.
Read more about cancer:
Skin cancer symptoms as Sarah Ferguson shares diagnosis (Yahoo Life UK, 6-min read)
Woman diagnosed with cervical cancer after losing her mum to the disease urges women to ‘listen to their bodies’ (Yahoo Life UK, 6-min read)
Woman who says cervical cancer symptoms were 'so mild' she dismissed them as hormonal changes has womb removed (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)