Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer worldwide in women under 45. If you have ever had a sexual relationship you may be at risk of cervical cancer – whatever your age or family history, and regardless of the number of partners you have had.
The good news is that great progress is being made in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer. But do you know what actually causes cervical cancer and what you can do to protect yourself? Read on to learn more about this important issue and feel free to contact us to talk through any questions you may have about cervical cancer or its prevention.
The cervix protects your uterus by acting as a barrier to infections. It is the lower, narrow end of the uterus (womb) that forms a canal between the uterus and vagina. The cervix allows the menstrual blood and also a baby to pass from the uterus into the vagina, and sperm to pass from the vagina into the uterus.
You may be surprised to learn that the main cause of cervical cancer is a virus. Scientists have proven that virtually all cervical cancer is caused by certain types of a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV).
Smears are performed using liquid based cytology. The patients receiving or Requesting a smear will be offered testing for HPV (human papilloma virus) at the same time (HPV is responsible for the majority of cervical cancer).
HPV is spread through sex and even sometimes during intimate genital skin-to-skin contact. Therefore, every woman who has ever been sexually active, regardless of age, is at risk of catching it. In fact, three quarters of sexually active women will be infected with HPV at some time in their lives.
Condoms are very effective against sexually transmitted diseases. However, they do not offer full protection against HPV, as the skin immediately around the genital area can also carry the virus.
HPV is very widespread and easily transmitted. Fortunately your immune system will usually be able to fight off an HPV infection without you ever knowing you have been infected. However if the virus remains in the cervix, abnormal cells can develop. In such cases these abnormal cells, if not identified early, can develop over a period of years into cervical cancer.
In the UK, cervical screening has been hugely successful in reducing the incidence of cervical cancer. Whilst cervical screening does not prevent infection with HPV, regular testing is the most effective way of detecting virus-related cervical cell abnormalities, which, if left untreated, can develop into cervical cancer.
During the test your doctor will use an instrument called a speculum to gently hold the vagina open to allow them to see your cervix more clearly, They will then use a special brush device to gently collect a few cells from the surface of your cervix. These sample cells will be sent away to a laboratory to be examined for possible abnormalities. Should any abnormal cells be found, you will be contacted and advised about any further tests or treatments. Screening only takes about 5 minutes and most women agree that, although perhaps a bit uncomfortable or undignified, they do not hurt and are over very quickly.
It is important to remember that an abnormal test result does not necessarily mean that cervical cancer has been found or will develop. The laboratory has simply discovered some changes in the cells that need further investigation. Many such changes will disappear of their own accord, however in some instances these abnormalities have the potential to develop into cervical cancer, which is why further investigation is required. Either way if you have any concerns please do call us, we will be happy to help.
Cervical screening is tremendously important in detecting cervical cell changes. You are therefore strongly encouraged to attend regular cervical screening. Cervical screening does not however prevent infection with HPV.
Cervical Cancer Screening (Smear Tests) is available at the practice to women of all ages. HPV vaccinations are also now available that provide immunity against some of the major cancer-causing strains of HPV, and may be something that you might like to discuss with the doctor.
Vaccination can give you protection against the two most common cancer-causing types of HPV. This helps prevent the majority of cervical cancers.
We understand that you may well have questions about cervical cancer vaccination and whether it is right for you. A good place to start is http://www.cervicalcancerinfo.co.uk. We also have leaflets at the practice that you are welcome to pick up.
Alternatively we would be more than happy to discuss this with you during your next visit or to set up a specific appointment to answer any questions you may have.
The Practice now has availability of two vaccines that can help to prevent cervical cancer. One of the vaccines is manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, the other is manufactured by Sanofi Pasteur, part of Merck. Both vaccines work by developing antibodies to HPV.