This month is Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, so I’m doing my bit by talking about all things Women’s Health on Twins in Trainers. You can read why this is so important here.
Today I’m talking about cervical screening, the one appointment women avoid like the plague. I mean, why would you voluntarily take off your knickers in front of a perfect stranger to have your cervix scraped? It sounds awful, doesn’t it? But from personal experience I can say it’s honestly not that bad, and if there’s one appointment you should attend, it’s most definitely this one. After all, it may just save your life.
Think I’m being dramatic? Unfortunately I’m not- every day in the UK, nine women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and three women will die of the disease.
Luckily, we have a screening and vaccination programme that has been proven to decrease the chance of a woman developing cervical cancer. The problem is, not everyone’s taking it up.
With this in mind, I’m going to dispel any myths about cervical cancer by explaining what it actually is, what causes it and what the screening process involves.
WHAT IS THE CERVIX?
You may have heard the cervix being referred to as the neck of the womb, which is quite a good description as it’s the lower part of the womb that’s found at the top of the vagina. There’s a passage from the vagina into the womb which passes through the cervix. It’s usually tightly shut, just allowing sperm in, and blood out- sorry to the squeamish people out there! The cervix is made up of 2 types of cells; skin- like cells and mucus producing cells. Either of these can turn cancerous and spread to other areas of the body if left untreated.
WHAT CAUSES CERVICAL CANCER?
One of the common causes of cervical cancer is the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) which I’m sure most you have heard of- HPV 16 & 18 are the most common strains causing cervical cancer, but other strains of HPV can cause problems such as genital warts too. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, but it’s so common that 80% of us will have it at some point in our lives, even if we’ve had just one sexual partner. This fact it in itself dispels the common myth that cervical cancer is related to sexual promiscuity. The virus doesn’t cause any symptoms, so it’s impossible to know whether someone has it or not. Luckily, most people will clear the virus within a couple of years, but while it’s there it can cause some abnormal changes in the cervix which could lead to cancer later in life.
We know that giving the HPV vaccine before someone becomes sexually active is a great way of preventing the disease, but given that most of us will have missed the boat with that one, we have to rely on regular cervical screening.
As well as HPV, there are a few other known risk factors for developing cervical cancer. Smokers are twice as likely to develop the disease (another reason why smoking is just so bad for you…), people who are immunosuppressed, or people who have been taking the combined contraceptive pill for more than 8 years.
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF CERVICAL CANCER?
Firstly, don’t panic! These are just signs of cervical cancer that you should be aware of- if you have them it doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer, it just means you should see your GP ASAP for further investigation.
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Bleeding between your periods
- Bleeding after sex
- Bleeding after the menopause
- Blood- stained discharge
- Pelvic pain
- Pain when having sex
WHAT IS CERVICAL SCREENING?
Cervical screening is not a test for cervical cancer; it’s a test to pick up abnormal cells that if left untreated, may lead to cervical cancer in the future.
All women in the UK aged 25-65 are offered cervical screening, although in Scotland it starts at 20. Initially, it’s offered every 3 years, and then every 5 years from the age of 50. Screening starts at 25 in the majority of the UK because it’s very uncommon to develop cervical cancer under this age, although rarely it may occur. So, if you’re under 25 and have any of the symptoms above, you should still see your GP even though you’re not eligible for the screening programme.
Cervical screening involves an internal examination which is usually performed by a nurse- I’ll be explaining in my upcoming vlog exactly what happens in a gynae examination- so watch this space!
Basically, a speculum examination is performed and a brush is used to scrape some cells off the cervix which are then sent to a lab for analysis. It may be slightly uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful. The results are usually available within 2 weeks and will be sent to your home address.
WHAT IF YOU GET AN ABNORMAL RESULT?
The results of the screening are either normal, inadequate or abnormal, but it’s important to remember that abnormal cells on the cervix often go back to normal with no treatment at all, so having an abnormal result does not mean you’re definitely going to develop cervical cancer.
- Normal; Phew! You don’t need to go back for 3-5 years unless you develop any symptoms in the meantime.
- Inadequate; This just means the sample wasn’t good enough so it needs to be performed again- I know, not ideal, but these things happen!
- Abnormal; 6 in 100 samples will be abnormal but very few of these will be caused by cervical cancer. Depending how abnormal the sample is depends what happens next. You may just have to repeat the sample slightly sooner than normal to see if the cells have returned to normal, or you may be referred to a gynaecologist for further investigation.
I really hope you’ve found this helpful, and if so, I’d love you to spread the message- The Eve Appeal is encouraging people to use #TimeToOpenUp across social media channels, so feel free to share this post so we can educate as many women as possible!
So, that’s it for this week! I’ll be covering the other gynaecological cancers in a post next Tuesday.
- The Eve Appeal
- Current NICE Guidelines on Cervical Cancer and Cervical Screening