In the UK, cervical cancer is the 2nd most common cancer in women under 35, with 2900 cases a year (approximately 8 women per day), according to Cancer Research UK.
Causes of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is caused by a sexually transmitted disease called the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). It is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the world and affects nearly all sexually active people at some time in their lives, usually just after becoming active. It is important to keep in mind that HPV can also be transmitted by non-penetrative sex, for example, genital contact is also a big risk.
Over 100 different types of HPV exist, with 13 known to cause cancer. Most infections caused by HPV heal themselves. However, recurring infection from specific types of HPV can lead to pre-cancerous lesions. If left untreated, these lesions can transform into cervical cancer over many years. Unfortunately, symptoms only occur once the cancer has reached an advanced stage:
- Irregular periods, spotting or abnormal vaginal bleeding after intercourse
- Back, leg or pelvic pain
- Fatigue, weight loss or loss of appetite;
- Vaginal discomfort or odorous discharge
- A swollen leg
Risk factors linked to the development of cervical cancer
Risk factors linked to recurring HPV infections and cervical cancer include:
- Sexual intercourse from an early age
- Multiple sexual partners
- Immune suppression (i.e. people with HIV are at higher risk and are infected by a larger number of HPV types)
Screening for Cervical Cancer
The most common form of screening is the PAP test, also known as a smear test, and should be done by the Gynaecologist every 3 years for women between 25 and 49 years old. Over 49 years old, it is recommended to do the test ever 5 years.
Cervical cancer under the age of 25 is considered very rare and the changing cells can sometimes resemble abnormal cell changes. If you are under 25 and worried about any unusual symptoms, don’t hesitate to visit your GP or Gynaecologist.
The tests involve lightly removing some cells from the cervix to examine them. It is a quick, pain-free test. Keep in mind that early screening is key to fast healing!
Treating Cervical Cancer
If the cancer is detected at an early stage, surgery can be used to treat it. In certain cases, it is possible to save the womb and in other case, it is removed in a procedure called Hysterectomy.
Radiotherapy can also be used during early stages, alone or with surgery. 2 types exist:
- Externally with a machine that sends high-energy waves into the pelvis to destroy the cancer cells
- Internally with a radioactive implant that is placed in the vagina and cervix
Cervical cancers that are more advanced usually require a mix of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Unfortunately, some of the treatments can cause long-lasting side effects, such as early menopause and infertility.
Vaccinations for Cervical Cancer
Since 2008, the HPV vaccine is given to girls aged between 12 and 13 years old (normally in year 8). The vaccine, Gardasil, helps protect girls against 4 types of HPV that are responsible for 70% of cervical cancers. Another advantage of this vaccine is that it also prevents genital warts, another common infection from HPV. The best way to detect the cancer is still PAP tests, even if you have had the vaccination.