As part of Target100000 and GynaeHealthUK’s launch of their home cervical screening kit, GynaeCheck, I was invited to a breakfast, hosted by Dr Pixie McKenna. She talked about the importance of cervical screening and HPV and we discussed a whole bunch of stuff, asking questions and sharing our own experiences.
“It is vital that every woman between the ages of 25 to 64 attend their cervical screening appointments religiously, whether through the NHS every three years or when using GynaeCheck every two years. It is a well-known fact that the HPV virus is the cause of 99.7% of cervical cancers and detecting it early could mean the difference between life or death. But don’t let this put you off, if cervical cancer is detected early there is up to a 99% chance of survival.”
— Pixie McKenna, GP & Media Medic
I learnt a lot during it and thought I’d share all the nuggets of information that I’d wish I’d known about cervical cancer, screening and HPV. Here’s my 10 things I never knew about cervical cancer but wish I had:
- You can have cervical cancer and not know it – some people are symptom-free; I didn’t have any symptoms. Symptoms to look out for, however, are abnormal bleeding (between periods or sex), discomfort during sex, lower back pain and / or unpleasant discharge.
- Not going for cervical cancer screenings is one of the high risk factors for dying from cervical cancer; the screening detects the vast majority of cases. Currently, the NHS National Screening Programme saves more than 4,000 lives a year, yet there are still 5 million women in the UK who are overdue their screening.
- Cervical Cancer is the 13th most common cause of death from cancer for women.
- Cervical Cancer commonly affects younger women, unlike other cancers. The risk of cervical cancer increases dramatically for women over the age of 25 years.
- 99.7% of cervical cancers are caused by the Human Papilloma Virus – it’s a sexually transmitted virus that is very common; 4 out of 5 people will be exposed to the virus at some point in their lifetime.
- HPV can cause abnormalities in the cervical cells which affects their DNA, resulting in the production of more abnormal cells. When the abnormalities are severe, these can develop into cervical cancer. Severely abnormal cells are graded CIN ( cervical intra-epithelial neoplasia) 2 or 3 which are pre-cancerous. If left untreated, radical treatment is required to remove them, often including surgery, chemotherapy and / or radiotherapy. If caught at CIN 2 or 3 stage, often surgery can clear them.
- There are over 100 types of HPV – it’s a blanket term for variations of the same virus. However, there are 14 which are believed responsible for causing cervical cancers; HPV16, HPV18 and HPV45 cause 70% of cervical cancers in Europe.
- For women under the age of 18, there is an HPV vaccine that can help prevent 7 out of 10 cervical cancers.
- There is now a home screening kit that is available to buy online for women over the age of 25. This lets you undergo cervical screening when you like, rather than every 3 years as decreed by the NHS. I went for my smear test in 2012 a year early and was turned away. In 2013, I was diagnosed with CIN3 and underwent 2 operations and more than 3 months in total of recovery.
- The best time to test for HPV is one week after your last menstruation – this is when the most accurate HPV concentration is found.
Cancer Research UK
Invasive Cervical Cancer Audit, Public Health England
Public Health England, Vaccination Program
Delphi Screening Device Literature