Cervical Cancer Awareness – Prevention & Screening
By Dr Anuska Randolph-Stephens, Chartered Health Psychologist & W2W Health Coach
Previously, we shared some writing on cervical screening for Cervical Screening Awareness Week, where we shared myths and facts about screening as well as why screening is important. We wanted to use this piece of writing to not only re-share this information but also take a holistic look and include advice and understanding on the signs and symptoms of cervical cancer as well as ways to reduce the risk of developing it also.
What do we know about Cervical Cancer?
Approximately 1 in 142 females in the UK will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in their lifetime (Cancer Research UK, 2021). This equates to about 3,000 women each year, with the most common incidence occurring between the ages of 30-34. Unfortunately, there are around 850 cervical cancer deaths every year in the UK (Cancer Research UK). To reduce not only incidence of this cancer, but also reduce mortality from this cancer, understanding ways to prevent cervical cancer, and awareness of symptoms is extremely valuable. Let’s take a look at this now.
What are the Signs and Symptoms to look out for?
To identify cervical cancer early, awareness of the signs cancer be really helpful. Here are a few things to look out for:
- Irregular vaginal bleeding that is unusual for you
- Postmenopausal spotting or bleeding
- Bleeding after sexual intercourse
- Changes in vaginal discharge
- Pain or discomfort during sex
- Pain in your lower back or pelvis
If you are experiencing any of these, talk to your GP or practice nurse. We know this is a sensitive topic, but your healthcare professionals should be supportive and understanding.
Can I reduce my risk of developing cervical cancer?
There are several ways one can aim to prevent the onset of cervical cancer. This can include having the HPV vaccine (offered to children aged 12-13 in the UK), as well as undergoing screening to identify abnormal cells before they develop into cancer. But, let’s also consider what lifestyle behaviours have an impact. To lower your chances of getting cervical cancer (NHS, 2021):
- Use condoms – they reduce your risk on contracting HPV though as they don’t cover all the skin around the genitals you are not fully protected
- Quit smoking – smoking lowers your immune system which increases your risk, as well as certain chemical in cigarettes are known to cause cervical cancer
- Eat a healthy diet – this aims to optimise a healthy immune system
‘Screening’ is a process of testing a certain population of people. The idea is that if we can identify something early, you are more likely to be treated with limited intervention and have better outcomes. Currently the UK offer screening for cancer of the cervix, breast, and bowel.
Cervical cancer screening, also known as the ‘smear’ test, aims to identify abnormal cell changes in the cervix. Cells are taken from the inside of the cervix and tested for certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV) which can lead to the development of cervical cancer. If identified, treatment can be offered before a cancer develops. You would be unlikely to experience any symptoms at this point, so the only way to identify is through screening (Macmillan, 2023).
Cervical screening is offered to women between the ages of 25-64 in the UK. It is important to note that this includes any individual with a cervix, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, which includes individuals who are non-binary or transgendered men (Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, 2023).
Myths Vs Facts about screening
It is important that we differentiate myth from fact to help when making the decision to go for a smear. Here are a few:
Myth – A smear test is painful
Fact – A cervical smear test should not be painful, but might feel slightly uncomfortable. However, for anyone that does experience pain, discussing what adjustments can be made to reduce it can help.
Myth – Cervical screening can detect other gynecological cancers (ovarian, womb), or sexually transmitted infections
Fact: A cervical smear test only detects abnormal cells relating to the HPV virus and cannot detect other cancers or STIs. It is therefore important to be aware of other symptoms and risk factors connected to these.
Myth – An abnormal result means you have cancer
Fact – An abnormal result doesn’t mean you have cancer, but, that there are particular changes in the cells. These cells could return to normal by themselves or need intervention to remove them in order to prevent the development of cancer.
Intention behaviour gap
Sometimes, we know all the facts and we have the full intention to go for that smear, but something gets in the way and stops us. We don’t go through with the behaviour. It can be helpful to take a little step back and reflect on the obstacles and think them through and find ways around them. As we have shown, screening is important. We have debunked some of the myths and taken a look at the facts. If you are still hesitating, reach out to a trusted friend, loved one or healthcare professional. Talk through your concerns, help them to help you overcome that intention behaviour gap. It may well save your life.
If you want to know more about Working To Wellbeing and how we support people with health behaviour change then get in touch. We look forward to hearing from you.
Macmillan (2023) https://www.macmillan.org.uk/cancer-awareness/cervical-screening-awareness-week. Accessed 16.06.2023.
Cancer Research UK. https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/cervical-cancer/incidence#heading-One Accessed 16.06.2023.
Cancer Research UK (2021) Cervical cancer statistics. Cancer Research UK. http://www.cancerresearchuk.org
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust (2023) https://www.jostrust.org.uk/information/cervical-screening/trans-non-binary. Accessed on 16.06.2023.
NHS (2021) https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cervical-cancer/causes/. Accessed 16.06.2023.