Many of us have been taught by our mums to check our breasts for lumps, bumps or changes, but when’s the last time you considered your cervical health? Cervical screening is used to detect changes in the cervical tissue, which can sometimes turn to cancer – and if you’re between the ages of 25 and 64, you can expect the NHS to offer you a free screening every three to five years, preventing the vast majority of cervical cancer cases from coming to fruition. Yet, some women skip out on their screening due to misinformation or fear, but we’re here to arm you with information so you can look after your health and attend your next smear with confidence.
According to the NHS, cervical cancer is the 14th most common cancer in females in the UK, and it primarily affects sexually active women aged between the ages of 30 and 45 (but it can affect younger or older women, too). In the UK, around 3,200 cervical cancer cases are diagnosed every year – that’s more than 8 diagnoses every day in the UK alone.
There is good news, though: most cases of cervical cancer are preventable, and you can protect yourself by attending your regular cervical screening appointment. Nearly every case of cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can be transmitted during sex. There are more than 100 types of HPV, but two high-risk HPV strains, HPV16 and HPV18, are known to be responsible for most cases. Luckily for female-bodied women everywhere, since 2008, the HPV vaccine has routinely been offered to girls aged 12 and 13.
The vaccine doesn’t protect against all high-risk strains of high-rise HPV, however, so it’s important to keep a close eye on any changes in the cervix. High-risk HPV can cause the cervical cells to become ‘abnormal’, which can eventually develop into cancer. Although not all cell changes develop into cancer, regular screening can help you choose to take action before the condition of your cervix deteriorates.
So, if cervical screening is so important, why don’t 100% of women and female-bodied people attend their smear? Unfortunately, there are some myths surrounding the smear test, one of them being that it is painful – while you may feel some very brief discomfort, the smear test shouldn’t cause any pain. When you attend your appointment, a nurse will take a sample of cells from the cervix by rubbing the cervix with a small soft brush, sending the sample to a laboratory for examination. The procedure will be over before you know it, but if you’re nervous, speak to the practitioner beforehand, who can take steps to make you feel more comfortable.
After your smear sample is sent to the lab, if high-risk HPV is detected along with abnormal cells, you will be invited for a colposcopy (a procedure in which a doctor looks at your cervix under a microscope to take a closer look). Depending on what can be seen, the doctor may take a biopsy to examine the tissue more closely, or you may be sent home and invited to come back again after one year.
Attending your smear is just one (very important) way to reduce your risk of cervical cancer – but you should also be aware of common cervical cancer symptoms so you can alert your doctor should any arise. Some of the main symptoms associated with cervical cancer are abnormal bleeding between periods or after sex, abnormal vaginal discharge, pain during sex or pain in the pelvis. Be sure to tell your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms – early detection of any cancer, including cervical cancer, is crucial in increasing the survival rate. There are more than 3,000 diagnosis per year in the UK, and 99.8% of these cases are preventable. More than 4,000 pre-cancerous cases are detected and treated every year thanks to the smear test!
At &SISTERS HQ, we care about your reproductive health, and we want to help you avoid the dreaded ‘C’ word (and this time, we’re not talking about coronavirus!). For more on the importance of smear tests, check our our blog post from last year, ‘Have No Fear, Get Your Smear’, where our copywriter discusses her own experience with high-risk HPV and abnormal cervical changes – and the smear that may have saved her life.
This post was written in collaboration with Celia Rodriguez, Emma Scholefield, Shumaila Shad and Jessica Speight from @whatcanyoucc, studying for MSc in Cancer Therapies at the University of Strathclyde