Cervical Cancer Prevention Week runs from the 23rd - 29th of January 2023 and the theme this year, advocated by Jo’s trust is #WeCan. This campaign aims to raise awareness of cervical cancer, encourage women to engage with prevention strategies such as attending for their cervical smears, and to help make cervical cancer a thing of the past.
In support of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week and Jo’s Trust, here’s 7 things you might not know about cervical cancer, 7 symptoms of cervical cancer and 7 ways to reduce your risk of cervical cancer.
7 Facts About Cervical Cancer
1. Nearly all cervical cancers (around 99.8%) are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Your smear test checks for HPV infection for this reason. If your smear comes back as HPV positive, don’t panic! This does not mean you have, or will get, cervical cancer. Read more about HPV in our blog article - Help! I Have HPV. Now What?
2. 1 in 142 UK females will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in their lifetime. Cervical cancer makes up around 2% of cancer diagnoses in women.
3. The most common age to be diagnosed with cervical cancer is between 30–34.
4. Cases of cervical cancer have decreased dramatically recently, with a 25% reduction in cases between 1995 and 2018. It’s hoped this will reduce further with the advent of vaccination against HPV.
5. The more unprotected sex you have, the more likely you are to get cervical cancer. The reason for this is simple - most cervical cancers are caused by HPV - which is transmitted via unprotected intercourse.
6. Most people diagnosed with early cervical cancer can be cured. In many cases, the cancer has not spread, and can be cured with a single visit to the gynaecologist to remove cancer cells from the cervix in a procedure called a large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ).
7. Most people diagnosed with cervical cancer will have some form of surgery, this includes minor procedures such as a large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ). Most people do not have chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
7 Symptoms Of Cervical Cancer To Watch Out For
1. Unusual vaginal bleeding. What do we mean by unusual? Well for those with a regular menstrual cycle, we mean any bleeding that’s unexpected, so outside our normal period - termed “intermenstrual bleeding”. Some people do not have a regular menstrual cycle, which may be for a variety of reasons including using hormonal contraception. Any bleeding after the menopause would also require investigation.
2. Bleeding during or after sex. Whilst other things, such as physical injury, vaginal dryness and infection, are more likely to cause bleeding during or after sex, any unexpected blood on the sheets after a session warrants a chat with the doctor.
3. Changes to vaginal discharge. Whilst our vaginal discharge can change due to our cycle, hydration and lubrication, it’s important that any major changes are checked out. Read our blog article on vaginal discharge for more information. A change in vaginal discharge most often means a sexually transmitted infection (STI), bacterial vaginosis or thrush. You can easily rule out STIs using Yoxly’s at-home STI testing kit.
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4. Pain during sex. Anyone who’s had vaginal sex has probably had an “oops” situation where a weird angle had caused discomfort or pain, but any new or persistent pain or discomfort during intercourse warrants a check by a healthcare professional. Whilst there’s many causes of pain during sex, such as endometriosis, vaginismus and infection (read more on our blog article - When Sex Is Painful), cervical cancer can also cause this symptom.
5. Back or pelvic pain. Now there’s hundreds of causes of back pain, and most people experience back pain at some point in their lives, but a persistent back pain that’s not related to activity, and not relieved by simple rest needs to be checked out. Similarly, any pain in the pelvic (lower stomach) that doesn’t have an obvious cause should be looked into.
6. Weight loss. Again there are LOTS of causes of weight loss, and losing weight may well be entirely intentional. But any unexpected weight loss, particularly if it is accompanied by a loss of appetite or feeling more tired than usual, should be investigated. Weight loss can be a sign of many medical conditions, but can also be a sign of cancer.
7. No symptoms. Most cases of early cervical cancer are entirely asymptomatic. For this reason, in the UK, women over the age of 25 are invited to attend for regular cervical smear tests, to help identify women at risk of early cervical cancer.
7 Ways To Reduce Your Risk Of Cervical Cancer
1. Attend your smear tests. The number one way to prevent cervical cancer is to attend for regular screening. Screening tests for HPV and associated cell changes. This means that any misbehaving cells can be swiftly removed before they become cancerous.
2. Stop smoking. Smoking is associated with all types of cancer, including cervical cancer. Women who smoke are twice as likely to suffer from cervical cancer in their lifetime. This is multifactorial, but may be related to the fact that smoking hinders your immune system, making your body less able to rid itself of any HPV infection.
3. Know your normal. Be familiar with your own body, including your vaginal discharge and menstrual bleeding pattern. It’s normal for discharge to vary, and menstrual cycles are rarely bang on 28-days, but knowing what’s normal for you is key. Any changes should be checked out.
4. Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese is the biggest contributing factor to cancer after smoking in the UK.
5. Consider HPV vaccination. The HPV vaccination is routinely offered to all teenagers in the UK, and to selected other higher risk groups. If you have not been vaccinated, you may not be eligible for a free vaccination on the NHS, however the vaccine can be purchased privately at many pharmacies.
6. Avoid unprotected sex. As we said above, HPV infection is the number one cause of cervical cancer and the types of HPV that are associated with cervical cancer can only be contracted through unprotected intercourse. Therefore, the more unprotected sex you have with different partners, the more likely you are to come across HPV.
7. Maintain a healthy diet. Keeping a healthy diet high in fruit, fibre and vegetables and low in saturated fats, sugar and alcohol contributes to better overall health, but also may help the body to ward off cancer and cancer-causing bugs such as HPV.
In summary, cervical cancer is rare, and in most cases preventable. Being aware of the symptoms of cervical cancer, knowing how to reduce your risk and raising awareness can help us on the journey to continue to reduce the burden of cervical cancer in the UK. Together #WeCan even eliminate cervical cancer.