What are the signs of cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers in females in the UK, with over 3000 cases being diagnosed each year, according to Cancer Research. Survival rates for this type of cancer are lower than some – around 61% of those diagnosed will survive 5 years or more. Yet if caught early enough, this cancer is very treatable – with 95% survival rate for those diagnosed with stage 1 disease.
In addition, unlike some cancers, cell changes in the cervix can be detected and treated before cancer even develops.
According to UK Cervical Cancer, 99.8% of cases of cervical cancer are caused by high-risk HPV infection. This means that, with early detection of HPV and careful monitoring, cervical cancer can not only be effectively treated, but could potentially be all but eliminated. “Early diagnosis is incredibly important with cervical cancer. As we screen against hr-HPV, we can identify those at risk before cell changes even happen. Technically this could lead to cervical cancer being one of the first cancers to be eliminated. And we can definitely get the number of those affected by the disease down.” explains Dr. Angela Pine, 10zyme Founder and CEO.
The NHS screening programme invites women and people with a cervix aged 25-49 years old for screening every three years by way of a ‘smear test’ – when a sample of cells is scraped from the cervix. Those aged 50-64 are screened every five years. Since 2019, samples are screened for high-risk HPV. A positive HPV diagnosis will lead to more regular screening to ensure the infection clears up or to identify any cell changes in time for early intervention.
While those under 25 are not routinely offered cervical screening, this does not mean that cancer cannot occur in this age group. However, according to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, research suggests that the risks of offering cervical screening under the age of 25 outweigh the benefits. Cell changes in the cervix are quite common at this age and usually clear up on their own.
In addition, as the HPV vaccine is now offered routinely in this age group, rates of cervical cancer should drop further.
However, if you are under 25 and experience any signs of cervical cancer, or other worrying symptoms, it’s important to raise these with your GP. While less than 1% of cervical cancer cases occur in those under-25 (around 4 in 100,000 women are diagnosed each year and the death rate from cervical cancer in this age group is 0 in 100,000).
Problems with cervical screening
Although screening is an incredibly effective way of identifying or preventing cervical cancer, uptake is low (between 40-50% of those invited for screening in England in 2018-2019, according to government data). This could be due to a number of factors.
There are so many reasons for non-attendance. Often it’s due to the nature of the test. It’s quite invasive and can be uncomfortable for some, whilst many find it embarrassing. Some also have issues getting time off work to attend screening – with many having to take the time off as annual leave.
HPV, the virus that causes the majority of cases of cervical cancer, often has no symptoms at all. This means you can carry the virus and pass it on unknowingly. The good news is that cervical cancer, and the cell changes that lead to it, can take years to develop, so if you are diagnosed with HPV, close monitoring and early intervention can prevent cancer from developing.
One reason for the relatively high mortality rate for cervical cancer is that early-stage cervical cancer often has no symptoms at all. Symptoms only tend to manifest once the cancer is more advanced and include:
Common symptoms include vaginal bleeding that’s unusual – so outside of your normal monthly bleed. Also bleeding during or after sex can be a sign. Bleeding of this type doesn’t necessarily indicate cancer, but any bleeding that’s not normal for you should be investigated.
Any bleeding should be investigated in women who are post-menopausal.
Lower back pain:
While lower back pain itself can have a number of causes, back pain that has no obvious cause may be a sign of cervical cancer. If you have back pain with no obvious cause, that continues for over a fortnight, it’s worth raising this with your GP.
All women tend to have some vaginal discharge, which may alter in appearance and texture over the course of a month. However unusual discharge may be a sign of cervical cancer. Any discharge that is different from usual may be a sign. Look out for changes in colour, consistency or smell.
Pain or discomfort during sex
For some, pain or discomfort during sex is a frequent experience – and there may be a number of causes. When it comes to cervical cancer, new pain or a change in the type of pain experienced could be a cause. “Some people experience pain during sex regularly. We are looking for changes – anything outside the norm,” explains Dr. Pine.
Women are good at knowing their bodies, so they may spot signs. But we tend to be less good at prioritising ourselves over others. It’s important to step away from this mindset and seek medical advice if you are at all worried.
While any symptoms related to cervical cancer should be investigated, preventative measures and screening can mean that cancer will never reach the stage at which symptoms are detected. In order to prevent cervical cancer and lower your risk, it’s important to attend screening and take up the vaccine if applicable.
If you are embarrassed or have other concerns about cervical screening, speak to your GP or seek online advice from Jo’s Trust at www.jostrust.org.uk
Make sure you download our Cervical Cancer Prevention Guide, part of our new Preventionist series. And follow us for all the latest development and progress news on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok