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Cervical Cancer: What you need to know

Here’s everything you need know from smear tests to symptoms

By Amy Lewis, 12 January 2016
Cervical Cancer: What you need to know

While terminal cervical cancer cases have dramatically dropped since the 1970s thanks to effective NHS cervical screening (aka smear tests), over 3,000 women are still diagnosed in the UK each year.

The thought of a cervical smear test probably doesn’t fill any woman with joy, but it’s not as painful or uncomfortable as it sounds

It’s the most common form of cancer among women aged 35 and under, so going for regular screening really is vital.

Aside from keeping on top of appointments however, there are a few other things you should know about cervical cancer. Consider this your essential factsheet.

SYMPTOMS ARE RARE

Often, the abnormal cells which can lead cervical cancer present no symptoms, which means that the only way they’ll be detected is via cervical screening.

Women in the UK are invited for a cervical smear test every three years from the age of 25 to 49 (in Scotland this is age 20 to 60). Your GP should send you a letter containing information about the test and asking that you call the practice to book an appointment at a time that suits you.

Women aged 50 to 64 are then offered screening every five years, while women 65 and older will only be tested if abnormal cells were found at their last screening.

CERVICAL SCREENING IS QUICK AND EASY

The thought of a cervical smear test probably doesn’t fill any woman with joy, but it’s not as painful or uncomfortable as it sounds. If you’re nervous or anxious, tell the nurse performing your test beforehand and they can help to reassure you.

During the test, a small sample of cells are taken from the lining of your cervix using a small brush-like swab and sent to a lab to be checked for abnormalities under a microscope. An abnormal reading doesn’t necessarily mean you have cervical cancer, though you may need further tests.

WHAT CAUSES CERVICAL CANCER?

Experts believe that in most cases, cervical cancer is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is very common and can be passed on through sexual contact with men or women. There are many different forms of HPV (it’s thought there are over 100 in total, with most being harmless), but some can cause abnormal changes to cells in the cervix.

Most women who have the HPV infection are unaware (there aren’t any symptoms) and don’t go on to develop cervical cancer. In some cases however, the cell changes can lead to problems.

WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU ARE DIAGNOSED?

If your cervical screening sample comes back with an abnormal result, it doesn’t always mean you have cervical cancer. You’ll be referred to a gynaecologist by your GP, who will carry out more tests. In most cases abnormal cells can be caught at their pre-cancer stage and treated very quickly.

If changes in the cells are more advanced however, the specialist may carry out a biopsy and an ultrasound scan, to establish what stage the cancer is at.

WHAT DOES TREATMENT INVOLVE?

Treatment options will largely depend on the stage at which the cancer is caught, and also your general health. Typical treatments can involve surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, but your specialist will explain everything to you and advise on the best course or combination of treatments.

SIGNS TO LOOK OUT FOR

While abnormal cervical cells or the early stages of cervical cancer normally come with no symptoms, there are some signs to look out for. These may not mean you have cancer, but it’s worth getting checked by your GP if you experience any or all of these:

  • Abnormal bleeding: during or after sexual intercourse, or between periods
  • Postmenopausal bleeding: if you are not on HRT or haven’t used it for six weeks
  • Unusual and/or unpleasant vaginal discharge
  • Discomfort or pain during sex
  • Lower back pain

For more information about cervical screening, abnormal cells, HPV and cervical cancer, please visit jostrust.org.uk and nhs.uk.