What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is cancer arising from the cervix. It is due to the abnormal growth of cells that have the ability to invade or spread to other parts of the body. Early on, typically no symptoms are seen. Later symptoms may include abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain, or pain during sexual intercourse. While bleeding after sex may not be serious, it may also indicate the presence of cervical cancer.
Human papillomavirus infection (HPV) causes more than 90% of cases; most people who have had HPV infections, however, do not develop cervical cancer.
Other risk factors include smoking, a weak immune system, birth control pills, starting sex at a young age, and having many sexual partners, but these are less important. Cervical cancer typically develops from precancerous changes over 10 to 20 years.
About 90% of cervical cancer cases are squamous cell carcinomas, 10% are adenocarcinoma, and a small number are other types. Diagnosis is typically by cervical screening followed by a biopsy. Medical imaging is then done to determine whether or not cancer has spread.
HPV vaccines protect against between two and seven high-risk strains of this family of viruses and may prevent up to 90% of cervical cancers. As a risk of cancer still exists, guidelines recommend continuing regular Pap tests. Other methods of prevention include: having few or no sexual partners and the use of condoms.
Cervical cancer screening using the Pap test or acetic acid can identify precancerous changes which when treated can prevent the development of cancer. Treatment of cervical cancer may consist of some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
Five-year survival rates are 68%. Outcomes, however, depend very much on how early the cancer is detected.
Who can have cervical screening?
In the UK, you are automatically invited for cervical screening if you are:
- between the ages of 25 to 64
- registered as female with a GP surgery.
You are invited:
- every 3 years between age 25 and 49
- every 5 years between age 50 and 64.
You may get your first invite up to 6 months before you turn 25. You can book an appointment as soon as you get the invite.
It is very rare to develop cervical cancer:
- under the age of 25
- over the age of 64, if you have had regular cervical screening.
If you are worried about any symptoms, you should get them checked by your doctor or nurse, whatever your age.