The questions you should be asking about cervical cancer
Cervical cancer affects thousands each year – yet it’s largely preventable with regular screening.
Make this Cervical Cancer Prevention Week (January 24-30) a time to get clued up on this condition. In the latest issue of healthy, our expert reveals what you need to know, but here are a few key points to get you started.
1 How common is cervical cancer and what are the survival statistics?
Although relatively rare, cervical cancer is one of the three most common cancers affecting female organs (the other two are breast and endometrial). The success of the screening programme has made cervical cancer much less common. Ten women out of every 100,000 are diagnosed with this cancer every year – that’s around 3000 females – and it mainly affects sexually active women aged 30-45. Caught early, survival rates are pretty good, though more than 900 women still die from it each year.
2 What are the main risk factors?
Infection with the high-risk forms of the human papilloma virus (HPV) is behind over 70 per cent of cervical cancers. Four out of five women will have been infected with HPV at some point, so it’s essentially as common as catching a cold. For most, it will clear within a year or two without doing any harm. However, in some it won’t clear and we don’t know why. This virus is transmitted through sexual intercourse or intimate contact. It’s important to emphasise that HPV infection has nothing to do with sexual promiscuity – even having sex just once can lead to infection.
3 Who gets cervical screening?
It’s offered to women aged 25-49 every three years, and those aged 50-64 every five years. Over the age of 65, it’s only for women who haven’t been screened since the age of 50, or those who’ve recently had abnormal smears. However, if you are outside these criteria and are concerned, you can always request a screening test from your GP. Regular screening saves lives – up to 5000 a year out of the 4.2 million who attend screening – so it’s important to take it up. It’s worth remembering screening is not a test for cancer; it detects abnormal cells on the surface of the cervix which, if left untreated, may turn into cancer.
Dr Adeola Olaitan is a consultant gynaecological oncologist at University College London Hospital. She is also a member of the medical panel of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.
Want to know more? Take a look at our ‘7 questions to ask about cervical cancer’ feature in the February issue of healthy