This year, around 3,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK – around a third of these women will die from the disease, although the highest number of deaths usually occurs in the 75 to 79 age group. On a global scale, cervical cancer is the seventh most common cancer overall (considering both sexes) and the third most common cancer in women. Worldwide, an estimated 275,000 women died from the disease in 2008, although the majority of this burden is in less developed countries. These statistics may sound steep, but cervical cancer is relatively rare in the UK – it’s the eleventh most common cancer in the country, and is declining: 759 women died of cervical cancer in 2008, which is almost a third lower than 30 years ago.
Cervical cancer can be prevented but despite this, in the UK in 2010, 20 percent of women did not attend routine cervical screening and only half of all girls offered the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in the catch-up programme chose to have it.
Figures like these highlight the need to raise public awareness of cervical cancer and how it can be prevented. This year’s Cervical Cancer Prevention Week runs from 20 to 26 January and focuses on many aspects, including symptom awareness, how the disease is caused and ways to prevent it.
You may not know it, but in 99.7 percent of women who have cervical cancer, the disease is caused by HPV – a very common virus transmitted through skin-to-skin contact in the genital area. HPV infection is common, but only a very small proportion of women with HPV will develop cervical cancer. However, all girls aged between 12 and 13 in the UK are now offered a vaccine which protects them against the HPV strains most likely to cause cervical cancer. In 2009, a three-year catch-up programme began to vaccinate girls under 18.
If you’re sexually active before you have the vaccine, you may already have HPV and the vaccine won’t get rid of it. However, there could still be benefits of having the vaccine because there are many strains of the virus and different vaccines protect against different strains.
Although the vaccination programme of young girls against HPV is a relatively new advancement, the message surrounding the importance of regular cervical screening has stayed the same. Cervical screening (commonly known as a smear test) can detect pre-cancerous/abnormal cells on your cervix. If abnormal cells are caught early, cervical cancer can be prevented. It’s estimated that cervical screening prevents up to 3,900 women developing cervical cancer per year in the UK.
If you’re aged between 25 and 64, you’re eligible for a free cervical screening test every three to five years (exact age groups for screening vary between different UK counties). If you’re sexually active, or have ever been, it’s important you attend regular screening, even if you have received the HPV vaccine. If you have never been sexually active, you are at a very low risk of cervical cancer but you should still attend screening appointments.
Cervical screening saves lives. Don’t ignore screening invitations and make sure you attend your screening appointment. In between screenings, be sure to see your doctor if you have abnormal vaginal bleeding, smelly vaginal discharge, pain during sex or in your pelvis, or vaginal bleeding after the menopause. More than likely, these symptoms will be caused by something far less serious than cervical cancer and can be easily treated. But, being aware of your body and what is normal for you will not only help you manage your health, it could potentially save your life.
Produced by Alice Rossiter from the Bupa Health Information team, whose website has more information on cancer.