Cervical Cancer Awareness Week started on January 19 2014. One week may not seem like much, but if it’s enough to draw attention to a much under-discussed health risk, then it will have been worthwhile.
Around 2,800 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK each year, with 1000 dying from the disease. It’s the most common cancer in women under 35 years old, but older women are also being affected too.
The risk to women over 55
The latest figures show that the proportion of women screened for early signs of cervical cancer drops from the age of 55 – and around a quarter aged 50 to 64 skip the five-minute check altogether.
These older women are up to six times more likely to develop the disease than those who attend all their appointments
Cancer Research UK have said regular smear tests are vitally important for older women and available in England on the NHS every three years between the ages of 25 and 49 and then every five years until 65.
What is of particular concern is that rates of screening among 60 to 64-year-olds are at a 16-year-low. Yet the number of cases in this age group is at its highest for a decade. Being in a long-term, monogamous, relationship does not offer the protection many women believe it does. Cervical cancer can still strike as you can be at risk from HPV caught years earlier.
Although the bulk of the 3,000 cases a year occur in younger women, cervical cancer is more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage and to be deadly in older women.
What causes it?
Early treatment can prevent cervical changes developing into cancer so it is essential to have the right information to stay healthy. The main cause of cervical cancer is the human papilloma virus (HPV). There are over a hundred different types, or strains, of HPV. Some types of HPV cause warts and verrucas, and others increase the risk of cervical cancers.
This common virus is usually transmitted through sex and it usually causes no symptoms. If you have a strong immune system it may get rid of the infection so you may never be aware of it and only a very small proportion of women with HPV will develop cervical cancer.
HPV is sometimes called the genital wart virus as some types of HPV cause genital warts. In fact, the types that cause warts are not the types that cause cervical cancer. But there are other types of HPV that are considered ‘high risk’ for cancer of the cervix. Women who get cervical cancer have usually had past infections with HPV as high risk types of HPV can cause changes in the cells covering the cervix that make them more likely to become cancerous in time. BUT most women infected with these viruses do NOT develop cervical cancer, so what are the other factors involved?
• Having sex at an early age
• Having other sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia and herpes
• Having many sexual partners, or having a partner who has had many partners
• Taking the contraceptive pill long-term
• Having a weakened immune system
Pre-cancerous cell changes do not usually have any symptoms and that it is why it is so important to have a regular smear test. However, if the condition is established then the most common symptom of cervical cancer is bleeding from the vagina at other times than when you are having a period such as between periods, after or during sex and at any time if you are past your menopause.
Not as common, but experienced by some women are a vaginal discharge that smells unpleasant, and discomfort or pain during sex. Please note that there are many other conditions that can cause these symptoms and they are much more common than cervical cancer. However, if you experience any of these symptoms go to your doctor immediately and get checked because early detection is the key to a successful treatment.
How to reduce the risk:
A vaccine is now offered to all young women, and this may be extended to an older age group, and may help prevent infection but it is not guaranteed. However, because of the lack of symptoms, having an annual smear is the best way to detect its presence.
• Always practice safe sex. Condoms do give some protection
• Strengthen your immune system with a good diet and appropriate supplements so you are less vulnerable to infection. Of your ‘five a day’ make sure one at least is cabbage as it has anticancer properties and contains phytonutrients that work to protect the body from free radicals that can damage the cell membranes.
• Progesterone hormone therapy has been shown to slow cancer cell growth for up to 30% of women who had advanced endometrial cancer. This therapy also helped to slow cancer cell growth in women who had endometrial cancer that had come back after treatment.
For more information and help with any type of cancer please visit http://www.cancerhelp.org.uk/
For young women concerned about cervical cancer, go to http://www.jostrust.org.uk