How to prevent cervical cancer – #SmearForSmear
24th January 2020
This week is Cervical Cancer Prevention Week. The awareness week, founded by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trus,t is behind the social media #smearforsmear campaign. This is why you may have seen your Instagram feed recently flooded with women (including the Adia team!) smearing lipstick on their faces to raise awareness and encourage women to attend their smear tests.
More than 3,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. This number has risen over the last few years and particularly within women in their late twenties. This group are least likely to attend their regular cervical screening – only 61.9% took up their doctor’s invitation of a smear last year – and they are also the group that would have missed out on the free HPV vaccine that was introduced into schools in 2008.
If cervical cancer is caught early enough, it’s possible to make a full recovery, or even stop the cancer developing at all. This is why it’s so important we recognise the ways in which was can help prevent and spot the disease – here’s our advice on how to do it.
Get regular cervical cancer smear tests
We know it’s not the most fun thing to do, but attending regular smear tests could save your life. It’s the best way to identify abnormal cells in the cervix at an early stage, and like all cancers, the earlier you catch it, the higher your chance of recovery. Smears have a reputation for being painful and embarrassing, but that shouldn’t be the case. Your doctor will do everything they can to make you feel as comfortable as possible, and whilst you might experience a brief spell of discomfort, it’s definitely worth it.
Women aged 25 to 49 are invited for a smear test by their doctor every 3 years. If you’re aged between 50 and 64, you’ll be asked to come in for a test every 5 years. This is usually done by letter, so it’s important that it doesn’t become one of the many unopened envelopes on the pile next to the front door. Make sure you keep your GP up to date with your address and contact details so that they can send you the reminder when it’s needed.
If you’ve been treated for abnormal cells in the past, you’ll probably be invited for a smear test at more regular intervals. The regularity will depend on how severe or advanced the cells were at your last screening. Always double-check with your GP if you are confused about your smear schedule, and keep an eye out for those important letters.
Know the symptoms
Although cervical screening can identify most abnormal cell changes in the cervix, it can’t always guarantee being 100% accurate. This is why it’s so important to understand and notice any symptoms so that you can report them to your GP as soon as possible. Whether that’s straight after your last screening or in between two, it doesn’t matter. No one knows your body better than you and if you feel like something is wrong, don’t hesitate to seek medical advice.
The most common symptom of cervical cancer is vaginal bleeding – when you’re not expecting it. If you find yourself bleeding outside of your period, after sex, or after the menopause, you should contact your GP. There are many reasons that bleeding could be happening – everything from PCOS to your contraceptive pill could be causing it – so don’t panic. But speaking to your GP will help identify the issues and take action where it’s needed.
Other signs you should keep an eye out for include pain and discomfort during sex, unusual discharge, and pain in your lower back or pelvis. Advanced cervical cancer might manifest itself in weight loss, incontinence or constipation. As always, speak to your doctor if you are concerned and give them the full picture of any symptoms you have noticed.
The HPV vaccine
Since 2008, girls between 12 and 13 have been offered the childhood immunisation programme which includes a vaccine that protects them against HPV. In 2019 the vaccine was also made available for boys of the same age. The vaccine has been developed to protect against 4 types of HPV, including the 2 strains that are responsible for most cases of cervical cancer in the UK. If you missed the opportunity to get the vaccine in your pre-teen years, girls can receive it for free on the NHS up until the age of 25.
If you are over 25, you can still get the vaccine privately either through your GP or at some local pharmacies. If you are trans or a man who has sex with men (MSM) you may be able to get the vaccine for free at some health clinics up until the age of 45. This is often decided on an individual basis, so speak to your GP or health advisor to find out the best course of action for you.
Whilst the vaccine can reduce the risk of cervical cancer, it doesn’t guarantee it won’t develop at some stage of your life. It’s crucial that you still attend your regular cervical cancer screenings, even if you have had the vaccine.
Practice safe sex
Safe sex is integral to our health, as there is a multitude of infections we can contract from unprotected intercourse. Many of these infections are treatable, but some can lead to longer-lasting illnesses and devastating effects later in life. Most cervical cancer cases are connected to an infection of HPV. HPV can be carried undetected and can spread through unprotected sex – so safe sex is one of the most important ways to reduce the risk of cervical cancer.
Using a condom will help protect you from HPV (as well as all the other STIs that no one wants to catch!) but it’s important to remember that it can also be contracted through any kind of sexual contact. The infection can be spread through oral and anal sex, genital skin to skin contact and via sex toys. There is currently no HPV test for men available in the UK, but women will be tested for it at their cervical screen and can also order an at-home test. Practising safe sex and being more informed about your sexual health will allow you and your partner to enjoy your intimate time together worry-free!
We all know that smoking increases the risk of lung and mouth cancer, but it can also lead to a higher chance of other cancers developing – including cervical. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that smokers were 3.4 times more at risk of cervical cancer. Even passive smoking can be damaging. The same study found that women who were exposed to three or more hours of smoke a day had about three times the risk of cervical cancer. Whilst it’s clear that smoking correlates to an increase in cervical cancer cases, the connection between the two is not fully understood. However, it’s believed to relate to the body’s ability to fight the HPV infection in the body which can develop into cancer.
Don’t panic if you are a current smoker – there is still time to reverse its effects. Studies have shown that after two years, women who quit smoking had the same risk of cervical cancer as women who never smoked. If you need some extra support on quitting, speak to your GP. They will be able to advise on the best course of action to help you break the habit.
If you want any more advice on support on your sexual or reproductive health, you can join Adia for free and access our panel of experts.