How to reduce your risk of cervical cancer

The most common cancer in women aged 35 and under, cervical cancer is diagnosed in around 3,000 women a year here in the UK, says the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. Each year in January the charity runs Cervical Cancer Prevention Week. In 2018 the event takes place from January 22 – 28, and the theme for the week is ‘Reduce your risk’.

Reducing your risk of cervical cancer is achievable, since the charity says 75 percent of cervical cancers can be prevented by having cervical screening (smear tests). Unlike some other forms of cancer the disease isn’t thought to run in families. And in nearly all cases (99.7 percent) it’s caused by persistent human papillomavirus (HPV) infections.

HPV is a common virus – around 80 percent of adults who are sexually active will be infected with some type of HPV in their lives. This doesn’t mean that four out of five women have a high risk of developing cervical cancer. But if you have a persistent infection caused by one of the high-risk types of HPV it can lead to cervical abnormalities, which may in turn increase your risk of developing cervical cancer.

Cervical screening checks for these cervical abnormalities and is thought to save around 5,000 lives each year in the UK. If you’re a woman between the ages of 25 and 49 you will be invited for cervical screening every three years, and then every five years until you’re 64. If your results show that you have low-grade cervical abnormalities you may also be tested for a HPV Infection.

Vaccination programme

In 2008 the national HPV immunisation programme was introduced into schools, and is available for girls aged 11 – 18 years in Scotland and 12 – 18 years throughout the rest of the UK. According to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, estimates suggest the programme will save up to 400 lives a year.

But even if you’ve had the HPV vaccine it’s still essential to go for cervical screening when you’re invited, as the vaccine doesn’t protect against all types of HPV. The charity also suggests that the best protection against cervical cancer if you’re not eligible for the vaccine is to continue going for regular cervical screenings.

During this year’s Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, the charity is also urging women to know the symptoms of cervical cancer and to seek medical advice if you experience any of them. These include:

  •  Bleeding between periods, during or after sex or at any time after the menopause
  • Discomfort or pain during sex
  • An unusual vaginal discharge
  • Pain in the lower back

According to Cancer Research UK, there are many other conditions that cause these symptoms, most of which are far more common than cervical cancer. However if you are affected by any of them, see your GP.

Get involved

This year, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is urging women to attend cervical screening when invited and, for girls aged 11 – 18, to take up the HPV vaccine. The charity is also encouraging women to talk to their friends and family about the disease, to make sure they know how they can reduce their risk too.

You can also get involved with Cervical Cancer Prevention Week in a number of ways, such as:

  • Sharing your story if you’ve been personal affected by cervical cancer or abnormalities
  • Using social media to help spread the word about cervical cancer prevention (#SmearForSmear)
  • Hosting a fundraising event
  • Having an awareness day at your office, business, school, college or community centre (order materials from the charity free of charge to give out)

Download more details about the NHS cervical screening programme online, or take a look at this NHS leaflet about the HPV vaccination.