Cancer is a scary word. But when you know all the facts, knowledge and understanding can reduce the fear. Find out everything you need to know about cancer and its effects...

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is, on a general level, not one of the most common types of cancer. In fact, with roughly 2,800 women being diagnosed with it every year, it only represents some 1% of cancer occurrences in the UK. Those most likely to be affected by cervical cancer are younger women – up to the age of 35 –and within this group it is the second most common type of cancer, second only to breast cancer (which affects some 48,000 women annually and thus represents 16% of all diagnosed cancer in the UK).

Types & Causes of Cervical Cancer

The most common type of cervical cancer is “squamous cell carcinoma”, followed by “Adenocarcinoma”. The former develops from the squamous cells which constitute the outer layer of the cervix, and are thus found at the top of the vagina. The latter, Adenocarcinoma, is generally less easy to detect and grows from the cells that line the glands inside the cervix. Cervical cancer is most commonly caused by HPV (Human Papillomavirus) infection; it is currently believed that HPV infections may be the cause of some 99% of all cervical cancer cases.

The vast majority of HPV do not present any symptoms, however some types may cause warts, and a in a minority of cases infections may lead to cancer. This includes not only cervical cancer, but also vaginal, anal, and penile. It should also be noted that the HPV infections that cause warts are different from those which may lead to cancer, and as such this type of infection does not in itself represent a heightened risk of cervical cancer.

Tests for Cervical Cancer

HPV infections can be detected through the use of the well-known and commonly used cervical screening method ‘pap smear’ (full name ‘Papanicolaou test’. In the UK, women who are registered with a general practitioner will be called in for a pap test once they turn 25; however, it is recommended that women who have been sexually active for three years arrange to have a pap test done, regardless of age. This is especially important for women who have experienced missed/highly irregular periods, bleeding after intercourse, excessive bleeding during menstruation, or itchy-/ill-smelling vaginal discharge. Pap tests consist of a doctor or nurse inserting speculum into the vagina so as to separate the walls and expose the cervix, after which a small brush-like instrument is used to collect a cell sample from the surface of the cervix.

Minimising the Risks

There are several steps that can be taken to minimise the chances of developing cervical cancer, however it should be noted that the degree to which chances are affected may not be great. Amongst these steps, it has been suggested that condoms may offer some protection against HPV infections, partly due to their prevention of STDs (which increase the risk of developing cervical cancer) but also because sperm has been linked to an increased risk of precancerous changes. Smoking also leads to an increase in the risk of cervical cancer, and there has been some evidence to suggest that a healthier and more balanced diet may decrease the risk of HPV persistence.