Cervical cancer screening saves women’s lives. For women of surgical screening age (35–64) who attend cervical screening appointments, the risks of a cervical cancer diagnosis in the 5 years after a test are reduced by 60% to 80% compared to women who don’t attend cervical screening. The presence of abnormal cells or changes in cells detected during a cervical screening test is not a cervical cancer diagnosis but can be an indicator that intervention is necessary to prevent cervical cancer from developing. In this article we look at the cervical cancer risk factors, cervical cancer symptoms, cervical screening and the reasons women miss cervical cancer screening appointments.
Cervical cancer risk factors
Human papillomavirus is the main cervical cancer risk factor
The human papillomavirus infection is linked to almost 100% of cervical cancer cases in the UK. HPV infection is passed through sexual contact and is not uncommon, but only progresses to cervical cancer in very few cases. Studies have shown that women who are more exposed to HPV infection, which is one of the cervical cancer causes, through a larger number of sexual partners are more likely to receive a cervical cancer diagnosis.
Older age can be a cervical cancer risk factor
One of the main risk factors for cervical cancer is older age and it has been shown that women who engage with cervical screening programs from a young age are amongst those least likely to develop signs of cervical cancer.
Oral contraceptives are one of the cervical cancer risk factors
Although oral contraceptives have been linked to only 10% of cervical cancer cases in the UK, they remain one of the possible cervical cancer causes. The use of oral contraceptives for 5 years or longer gives a higher risk of developing signs of cervical cancer than no use at all. It should be remembered, however, that the contraceptive pill could also protect against some other types of cancer.
Smoking is another cervical cancer risk factor
Amongst the cervical cancer causes, tobacco remains a significant factor, being linked to 7% of cervical cancers in the UK. The link between tobacco smoking and cervical cancer is based on current smoking and there is no association with past smoking habits.
Non-attendance of cervical screening
It should be made very clear that, when it comes to cervical cancer risk factors, one of the biggest is the failure to attend cervical screening appointments. Regular cervical screening from an early age is the largest single protective factor against cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer symptoms
Cervical cancer symptoms do not usually appear at the precancer stage, which is one of the reasons that cervical screening is so important. For women with stage 1 and stage 2 cervical cancer, symptoms can include:
- Unexpected levels or timing of vaginal bleeding
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Painful sexual intercourse
- Persistent pain in the back or pelvis
Advanced cervical cancer is cancer that has spread from the pelvic area to another part of the body, for example, the lungs or liver. Survival rates from advanced cancer vary and a discussion with a cancer specialist is the best way to find out information about individual cases.
Cervical cancer screening
Cervical cancer screening can pick up cervical cell abnormalities that might lead to cervical cancer long before symptoms appear. Every year free cervical cancer screening is offered to around 5 million UK women aged between 25 and 64. Women between the ages of 25 and 49 are offered a cervical screening appointment every 3 years and women between the ages of 49 and 64 every 5 years. Also known as smear tests, there can be no doubt that cervical screening saves 2,000 UK lives each year. National cervical screening in the UK started in 1988 in reaction to the rising trend of cervical cancer mortality in women younger than 35 years old. Since 1988 the rates of cervical cancer have very nearly halved.
Reasons women give for missing cervical cancer screening appointments
A recent study has shown that a quarter of UK women, who are of cervical screening age, don’t attend cervical screening test appointments. As more than 3,200 UK women each year receive a diagnosis of cervical cancer, this figure may be surprising. We look at three commonly given reasons for missing cervical screening appointments.
‘I was too embarrassed to have my smear test’
Embarrassment can come from many quarters; the cervical cancer screening process is an intimate one that can be particularly embarrassing for some women, whilst other women admit that concerns about their body shape also lead to embarrassment and cervical cancer screening avoidance. The good news is that there is help out there for women who are embarrassed and medical practice nurses are used to helping people with their concerns.
‘I had the HPV vaccination at secondary school’
Many younger UK women will have had the HPV vaccination at secondary school, which offers protection against the two types of human papillomavirus that cause the most incidences of cervical cancer. However it is important to remember that these vaccinations do not protect against all types of HPV. Regular cervical cancer screening or smear tests are still vital to women who have had the HPV vaccination.
‘I didn’t think my cervical screening test was important’
The figure for cervical screening non-attendees increases to 1 in 3 for women who are aged between 25 and 29. This is particularly worrying because it is women in the 25 to 35 age group who are at the highest risk from cervical cancer. Education still has a big part to play in the understanding of the risks to women from cervical cancer.
With the notable absence of cervical cancer symptoms at the pre-cancer stage, the importance of regular cervical cancer screening from an early age cannot be ignored. Cancer screening in the UK is free for women between 35 and 64. The screening procedure is not as invasive or uncomfortable as some women fear and has a proven track record of cervical cancer prevention. If you wait until you experience signs of cervical cancer, it may be too late for an effective solution. Cervical cancer screening continues to save thousands of UK lives every year.
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