Although described as “uncommon” by the NHS, cervical cancer claims the lives of 1,000 women in the UK each year and remains the most common form of cancer for women under 35.
It’s a form of cancer that develops in a woman’s cervix, the entrance to the womb from the vagina.
HuffPost UK Lifestyle spoke to Adeola Olaitan, consultant gynaecological oncologist at the University College London and expert at The Eve Appeal, Martin Ledwick, Cancer Research UK’s head information nurse and Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, to find out more about symptoms, causes and prevention.
The human papilloma virus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer. It is estimated, according to JMM Walboomers writing in the Journal of Pathology, to cause as many as 99.7% of cases.
HPV is a sexually transmitted disease which comes in more than 100 different forms. Some are symptomless, while others can cause genital warts or verrucas.
According to Martin around 15 strands are linked to cervical cancer, with two particular types (HPV 16 and 18) causing approximately 70% of cervical cancers alone.
“Around 80% of people would have been infected as some stage in their lives,” says Adeola.
“The virus is normally cleared by the body’s immune system and the majority of people get rid of it within 2 years. A small proportion of women will have persistent infection for reasons we do not fully understand. We do know however that women with an impaired immune system are ore likely to have persistent infection.”
Despite often having no clear indicators, the virus can be spotted during routine cervical smear tests. So it is important to attend these regularly.
It could take as many as 10 to 20 years for cervical cancer to develop after a HPV infection, says Martin. But he stresses the importance of catching the virus as soon as possible.
HPV isn’t the only cause of cervical cancer however. Robert notes many other potential causes, including: smoking, weakened immune system, having children at a very young age, giving birth to many children and long-term use of the contraceptive pill – this can slightly increase the risk of developing cervical cancer but the benefits of the pill outweigh the risks for most women.
What happens if you have HPV?
“We cannot treat HPV infection, we can only treat the cell changes that it sometimes produces,” says Adeola.
“Women only get screened for HPV as part of cervical screening. If a woman attends for screening and has a normal result, she will not be screened for HPV. If the test shows a mildly abnormal result then the woman is tested for HPV on the same sample.In other words she will not need to be called back for another test.
“If she is negative for HPV, the mild smear abnormality is considered insignificant and she will be advised to have routine screening. If the HPV test is positive, she will be referred to a specialist for a test called colposcopy where the cervix is examined with a magnifying device to exclude a higher grade abnormality. So HPV testing is used to decide which women will benefit from further investigations.”
There are usually no symptoms with abnormal cells (in their pre-cancerous state) and sometimes none with early stage cervical cancer either.
Some recognised symptoms to look out for include:
Of course with lack of symptoms not unheard of, both Martin and Robert stress the importance of attending routine cervical smear test.
“Screening allows any abnormal cell changes to be picked up before they can develop into cancer,” says Martin. “It’s estimated that cervical screening saves around 5000 lives each year in the UK and, since its introduction in the 1980s, rates of the disease have almost halved.”
“Cervical cancer is unusual in being theoretically totally preventable by screening, because early changes in the cells of the cervix can be picked up long before a cancer will ever develop,” says Robert.
“Nowadays girls aged 12 or 13 in the UK are routinely offered the HPV vaccine at school,” Martin adds. “These vaccines protect against the types of HPV that are most likely to cause cervical cancer. But they do not protect against all strains.”
“Treatment of cervical cancer depends on the stage at which it is detected and, to some extent, whether or not the patient wishes to try and conserve fertility,” says Adeola.
“Very early cervical cancer can be treated with a cone biopsy, a procedure that removes a small part of the cervix, leaving the womb intact so the woman can have children. If she has completed her family, the woman might opt for a hysterectomy. If the disease is slightly more advanced but still confined to the cervix, the treatment is a radical hysterectomy which is an operation to remove the womb and the tissue around the womb.
“In addition, the lymph glands in the pelvis are removed. The ovaries may be left behind in a younger patient so that she does not go through the menopause. Larger cancers are treated with a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. The earlier a cancer is detected, the higher the chances of cure. It is important therefore that women do not ignore symptoms that might suggest cervical cancer.”
For more information visit:
The Eve Appeal or call their helpline on 020 7605 0100.
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust or call their helpline on 0808 802 8000.
Cancer Research UK or call their team of specialist nurses on 0808 800 4040.