Most women will tell you that going for a cervical smear is not one of their most favourite activities, but it has never been more crucial for women to have one. The World Health Organisation now regards cervical cancer as a completely preventable disease, as long as a woman undergoes regular screening, which is why cervical screening is important.
Cervical screening is important for all women over the age of 25 who have ever been sexually active either in male/female or same sex relationships. Cervical disease affects younger women as much as it does older; the two most common times for diagnosis are in the mid 30s and late 60s. The older peak is due to exposure of HPV in later life, often accompanied by changing relationships.
HPV is a virus that most people are exposed to when they are sexually active. This is irrespective of safe sex practices. In a small percentage of women the virus is not cleared and turns into pre-cancerous cells and—very rarely—cancerous cells. As the process is slow, regular screening will allow identification of any changes and treatment before cancer develops.
What lifestyle changes can help reduce the risk of HPV and cervical cancer?
There are a number of lifestyle changes that you can make such as:
Condoms are very important in reducing sexually transmitted diseases, but do not wholly protect against HPV as the virus is present in the whole genital area (a so-called “field effect”). As a consequence, even individuals who practice safe sex are at risk of contracting HPV, and as such should consider screening. Be aware that HPV also plays an important role in mouth and anal cancer meaning that unprotected oral and anal sex may also spread HPV.
The combination of smoking and already having HPV is more likely to lead to cervical cancer. Women who smoke and have HPV are twice as likely to have pre-cancerous cells in the cervix.
Weakened immune systems
The immune system can play a part in preventing cancers and hence a weakened immune system can increase the risk of cervical cancers developing. Women with HIV/AIDS have been found to have a six-fold increased risk and those having undergone transplant surgery also have double the risk.
Women who have a 1st-degree relative (i.e. mother or sister) who has had cervical cancer have a higher risk of developing the disease. This link does not appear to be straightforward and is believed to be due to similar lifestyles or a shared immune response to the HPV virus.
The symptoms of cervical cancer
Cervical cancer is difficult to detect in its early stages unless regular screening is carried out because pre-cancerous cells that develop prior to cervical cancer do not produce any symptoms. This is why undergoing regular screening is so important. The most common early signs and symptoms of cervical cancer include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding—this most commonly occurs after sex (post-coital bleeding) but it can also occur between periods (inter-menstrual bleeding). If you are a post-menopausal woman, cervical cancer can cause vaginal bleeding.
- Smelly vaginal discharge—this may contain blood and occur between periods. It can also occur in post-menopausal women.
- Pain or discomfort—this happens most commonly during sex.
- Pelvic or lower back pain—this often accompanies the other symptoms.
These symptoms could be related to many more common conditions but should always be checked out by a Gynaecologist or your GP. Early detection of cervical cancer significantly improves outcomes, which is why cervical screening is important.
Self-testing with GynaeCheck
By using GynaeCheck a woman may be in the 90 percent of women who may never have to have another traditional smear test ever again! GynaeCheck offers a self-testing service for the most important part of cervical screening, to identify whether high-risk HPV (the Human Papillomavirus) is present or not. This high-risk HPV is responsible for almost all cervical cancers, which is why cervical screening is important.
GynaeCheck introduced the process of primary HPV screening in 2015, before the NHS announced in 2016 that it will be rolled out across in England from 2019 onwards. It is reliable, convenient, discreet and can be done in private by the woman herself. This overcomes many of the reasons that one million women in England have never had a test and over another one million are more than a year late for their next test. GynaeCheck also allows for a woman to check her HPV status to see whether vaccination may be suitable or not for her on an individual basis. Another reason of why cervical screening is important; the vaccine only protects against 60-70 percent of cervical cancers therefore even younger women who have received the HPV vaccine should continue with screenings.
GynaeCheck is more than just a self-test for HPV, as, should the test be positive, comprehensive information about what to do next and how to have further investigations is provided to all clients, including referral to a trusted network of Consultant Gynaecologists if requested. For more information, visit the GynaeCheck website.
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