Although cancer survival rates are far better than they once were, “The C Word” still strikes fear into our hearts. The fear of cancer is not unfounded though. It’s still one of the biggest killers and in 2016 became the biggest killer, dislodging cardiovascular disease from the top spot for the first time. However, “cancer” is not a single condition. It is a range of conditions. What it is, how it spreads and how we treat it depends on where in the body it is. The end of January every year is Cervical Cancer Week. It’s not one of the biggest killers of women, but it is preventable.
What is Cervical Cancer?
It’s a condition that only women get. It develops in the cervix – the channel between the vagina and the womb. Any woman who is or has been sexually active is at risk. This is the main reason women are requested to go for semi-regular screening. When pre-cancer cells appear, it may be quite some time before the patient is symptomatic. Typical symptoms include vaginal bleeding. The patient will experience this after sex, randomly between periods for women who have not gone through the menopause, and bleeding in general for post-menopausal women.
The cells of the cervical wall experience chemical changes. Sometimes, they become pre-cancerous. Having these types of cell in your cervix does not mean you have or will develop cancer but treatment is strongly advisable as a precaution. From the age of 25, every woman should have a regular cervical smear test (3 years). After the age of 50 and until 64, that drops to every five years. Women after 65 will only be called for tests if they’ve ever had abnormal results. Tests are available on the NHS.
How Does Cervical Cancer Begin? What Causes It?
In almost all cases of cervical cancer, the causing agent is the human papillomavirus, also known as HPV. This common sexually transmitted virus is passed from one person to another during any form of sexual contact. HPV is not one virus; there are over 100 variations most of which do not cause any type of harm. Two HPV variations (known as HPV16 and HPV18) cause cells to “corrupt” which increases the risk of cervical cancer. These viruses do not show symptoms which is why it is necessary to screen for cervical cancer. HPV infection is common; in most cases, patients with HPV will not develop cancer but many will each year.
How Common is Cervical Cancer?
The prospect of cervical cancer is terrifying. However, it’s important to remember that around 3,500 women each year receive this diagnosis. It’s only the 20th most common form of cancer in the UK, making up just 1% of all new cancer diagnoses in any given year. In 2014, there were 890 deaths from 3,224 diagnoses (9 new diagnoses every day, around 2 of whom will die from the disease). 63% of those diagnosed will survive the condition for 10 or more years. That’s very good odds from a type of cancer that isn’t all that common.
This Year’s Event
This year’s prevention week concerns hints and tips for Reducing Your Risk. It is said that 75% of Cervical Cancer cases are preventable with the right resources and screening and when every person eligible for a screening test takes up the offer. Organisers want women to:
• Ensure they attend all cervical screening when invited to visit the local hospital
• To improve education of the systems and help women understand what they are
• Improve uptake of the HPV vaccination, presently available to girls between the ages of 11 and 18
• Improving support networks, not only for patients and those at high risk but everyone else too.