21st – 27th January marks Cervical Cancer Prevention Week. If you are female and between the ages of 25-64, you should have been invited to have your routine cervical screening, also known as a smear test. These are every 3 years if you’re between 25-49, then every 5 years after the age of 50. But what is Cervical Cancer? What’s a smear test? What makes this so important? Whether you’re overdue or you’re due your first screening, Assured Pharmacy are here to answer any questions you may have about Cervical Cancer Week.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer mainly affects sexually active women between the ages of 30-45, however, there’s no harm getting a headstart if need be. The cervix is the lower part of the womb, leading to the vagina. Cervical cancer begins to develop here, where abnormal cells can grow and cause problems.
What causes cervical cancer?
The HPV virus is the cause of a high majority of cervical cancer cases. This is a very common virus among sexually active people and is often treated before it causes any major, long-term concerns. It will infect most sexually active people in their lifetime, but our immune systems will treat it on its own.
Pre-cancerous conditions such as cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) or cervical glandular intraepithelial neoplasia (CGIN) can also potentially cause cervical cancer. However, these conditions take years to develop and will be detected during a cervical screening. They can often be treated fairly easily once detected.
Other possible causes are smoking, a weak immune system, taking the contraceptive pill for over 5 years, having children whilst younger than 17, or having over 5 children. The connection between childbirth and cervical cancer is still unclear, however.
What is HPV?
HPV is a very common STI. There are over 100 different types of HPV, of which only 12 can cause cervical cancer. However, the main danger of HPV is that that it is symptomless meaning we can have them for years before they start to develop, so regular checkups are necessary. Once detected it can be treated easily enough, and it never hurts to wear a condom. Girls can also get the HPV vaccine once they are 12 years old.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Just like HPV and other STI’s, symptoms of cervical cancer can often go unnoticed for years.
The main symptoms to look out for however are unusual bleeding or discharge from the vagina, which can occur during or after sex. Also, general discomfort during sex and pain in the lower back region can be early signs of cervical cancer.
However, it’s important to note, if a person has these symptoms, this doesn’t necessarily mean a person has cervical cancer. They will often be a sign of a less serious condition, yet if you experience any of these, it’s certainly worth getting checked by your doctor, just in case.
What is a smear Test?
A smear test, AKA Cervical screening test, is the process in which a sample of cells from the cervix are taken and tested for any abnormalities. This is also the same method in which HPV tests are carried out, which is often on the same day.
What does a smear test involve?
As all of this can sound daunting, why don’t we go through specifically what the process will involve?
The test itself only takes roughly 3 minutes. Firstly, you will be taken into the treatment room and asked to undress from the waist down. You will then lie on an examination bed and place your ankles together, then your knees up and apart.
Once you are comfortable, the nurse places a new, sterilised speculum into your vagina (which is often the uncomfortable part for some) which gently expands, so that the nurse can see your cervix. A small sample of cells are then taken to be diagnosed.
What happens if you fail a smear test?
If the results you receive back show that you have cervical cancer, there are lots of options of treatment available for the next step. First of all, you will have a multidisciplinary team (MDT) made available to you, who will fully assess your cancer and discuss with you your best possible options for treatment. The MDT includes a team of experts such as surgeons, radiologists, social workers etc, who are all there to support you through treatment, emotionally and well as physically.
Different types of treatment will be either be surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy. In some cases, it can be more than one of these.
The treatment recommended, however, will depend on many things, such as the stage and grade of cancer, where the cancer is, the type of cancer and your general health.
What makes cervical cancer week so important?
The smear test can help prevent 75% of cervical cancers. Although it can be uncomfortable, it is a quick, simple and safe procedure, which saves many lives. However, despite this, the number of people not going for their routine smear test is lower than ever before, with over 1 million women in the UK not being tested.
What can you do to help?
First of all, if you meet the criteria, go for your routine smear tests when required. The earlier any potential problems are detected, the higher the chances of a successful treatment, if necessary. Also, remember to use a condom with any sexual partners, this isn’t a 100% guarantee of preventing cervical cancer however can help prevent HPV.
Finally, you can help by spreading the word. Whether it’s a family member, partner or friend who needs to have their routine checkup, encourage them to go and support them. It may not sound like much, but it could save a life.