Cervical cancer develops in the cervix, which is the opening between the vagina and the womb. Cells on the surface of the cervix change over the course of a woman’s lifetime and can sometimes become cancerous.
During its early stages, cervical cancer often has no symptoms.
The most common symptom of cervical cancer is unusual vaginal bleeding, which often occurs after sexual intercourse or in between periods.
Other symptoms include:
- pain in and around the vagina when having sex
- an unpleasant smelling vaginal discharge
- pain when passing urine
If you have any unusual bleeding outside of your regular period, after sex or after the menopause, you should consult your GP.
Cervical cancer develops in women who have been infected with the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which is sexually transmitted. This virus is very common and it’s thought that one in three women are infected with the virus within two years of becoming sexually active. The virus is normally harmless – not all women with HPV will get cervical cancer.
The virus can sometimes change the cells which line the cervix into pre-cancerous cells, which have the potential to develop into cancer.
The earlier cervical cancer is detected, the more positive the prognosis will be. Around 90% of women who are diagnosed with stage one cervical cancer will live for longer than five years. All women over the age of 24 years should have regular cervical smear tests. Smear tests are the best way of reducing your risk of cervical cancer; they pick up changes in the cells, so that treatment can be given before cancer develops. Many women are embarrassed about having a smear test, or do not have time to fit them into a busy schedule, but they’re vitally important and can be life saving. The NHS recommends that you have a smear test every three years if you’re between 25 and 49, and every five years if you’re between 50 and 64.
Quitting smoking can also help reduce the risk of getting cervical cancer. You can get advice from your GP or pharmacist to help you quit. There are also HPV vaccines now available to teenage girls which vaccinate against the HPV virus. They are usually administered to girls between 12 and 13 years, although there is currently a catch-up programme running for girls up to the age of 18 years. The vaccines however are not currently a substitute for smear tests, and you should continue to have regular smears tests to ensure you are safe. Speak to your GP for more information on the HPV vaccines.
There are a number of factors which increase the risk of getting cervical cancer:
- Smoking – women who smoke are twice as likely to get cervical cancer as women that don’t smoke.
- Having a weakened immune system – this applies to people with HIV/AIDs, or those who have taken tablets to stop their bodies rejecting a donated organ, for example.
- Having children – a woman with two children is thought to be twice as likely of getting cervical cancer as a woman with no children. The more children you have, the more at risk you become.
If you or a loved one has cervical cancer and you need financial, emotional or practical support, or if you would like more information about cervical cancer, there are a number of charities and support groups which can help. Organisations such as Macmillan Cancer Support, Jo’s Trust (a cervical cancer charity), and the Eve Appeal, (a gynaecological cancer charity) may be able to assist you. You can also seek support at your local GP surgery.