Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide, despite being largely preventable . Although the aim of vaccination against human papillomaviruses (HPV) is to prevent the disease from occurring, the aim of cervical screening (also known as a smear test) is to detect the disease early. This is because cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable forms of cancer when detected early . Even though the importance of cervical screening may seem apparent, data suggest that 1 in 3 women and people with a cervix do not attend cervical screening appointments . Cervical Cancer Prevention Week (17–23 January 2022) focuses on raising awareness of cervical screening and provides information and support for those who have been diagnosed with cervical cell changes or HPV after screening .
What is cervical cancer?
The cervix is the opening between the vagina and the uterus and is often referred to as the ‘neck of the womb’ . Cervical cancer develops slowly because of abnormal cell changes in the cervix and can affect women, transgender men, and people assigned female at birth. There are two main types of cervical cancer :
- Squamous cell carcinoma, which develops from cells at the top of the vagina that cover the outside of the cervix
- Adenocarcinoma, which develops from cells found in the cervical canal
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Although early-stage cervical cancer may be asymptomatic , symptoms of later-stage cervical cancer include :
- Heavier periods or unusual vaginal bleeding (e.g. between periods, after the menopause or during/after sex)
- Changes to vaginal discharge
- Pain during sex
- Pain in the lower back or lower stomach, or between the hip bones
It should be noted that some people may experience these symptoms regularly because of other health conditions, and therefore individuals should monitor if their symptoms change or are not normal for them .
How can we prevent cervical cancer?
HPV infection is a known risk factor for cervical cancer. Out of the 206 types of HPV, 13 have been identified as high risk and a further 14 as possibly high risk . Therefore, for primary prevention of cervical cancer, the aim is to reduce HPV infection via vaccination.
For secondary prevention of cervical cancer, the aim is to identify HPV infection and consequent changes to cervical cells via cervical screening . A speculum is inserted into the vagina and a small, soft brush is used to take a sample of cells from the cervix . The sample is checked for high-risk types of HPV; if it is positive, the sample is examined for changes to cervical cells. If detected, these abnormal cells can then be treated prior to the development of cervical cancer .
Although cervical screening prevents over 7 in 10 diagnoses of cervical cancer , 1 in 3 women and people with a cervix do not attend cervical screening appointments  because of reasons such as embarrassment, pain and fear of results . Tips to help make cervical screening a more comfortable experience include :
- Talking to a nurse or doctor about questions or concerns
- Asking for a nurse or doctor of a particular gender
- Asking to book a longer or double appointment
- Attending the appointment with a trusted person
Cervical cancer screening can and does save countless lives each year and will continue to play a vital role in the prevention of cervical cancer in the future.
For further information and support, please visit:
- NHS (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cervical-cancer/)
- Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust (jostrust.org.uk)
- Macmillan Cancer Support (https://www.macmillan.org.uk/cancer-information-and-support/cervical-cancer)
The information in this article is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content is for general information purposes only. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or medical condition.
- World Health Organization. Cervical cancer. Available at: https://www.who.int/health-topics/cervical-cancer#tab=tab_1. Accessed January 2022.
- Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. Cervical Cancer Prevention Week. Available at: https://www.jostrust.org.uk/get-involved/campaign/cervical-cancer-prevention-week. Accessed January 2022.
- National Health Service. Overview: Cervical cancer. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cervical-cancer/. Accessed January 2022.
- Macmillan Cancer Support. Cervical cancer. Available at: https://www.macmillan.org.uk/cancer-information-and-support/cervical-cancer. Accessed January 2022.
- National Health Service. Symptoms: Cervical cancer. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cervical-cancer/symptoms/. Accessed January 2022.
- Hu Z and Ma D. The precision prevention and therapy of HPV-related cervical cancer: New concepts and clinical implications. Cancer Med 2018; 7 (10): 5217–5236.
- Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. About cervical screening. Available at: https://www.jostrust.org.uk/information/cervical-screening/what-is-cervical-screening. Accessed January 2022.
- Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. What happens at cervical screening? Available at: https://www.jostrust.org.uk/information/cervical-screening/what-happens-during-cervical-screening. Accessed January 2022.
- National Health Service. What is cervical screening? Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cervical-screening/. Accessed January 2022.
- Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. Overcoming barriers to cervical screening. Available at: https://www.jostrust.org.uk/professionals/cervical-screening/barriers. Accessed January 2022.
- Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. Our cervical screening tips. Available at: https://www.jostrust.org.uk/information/cervical-screening/cervical-screening-tips. Accessed January 2022.
Author: Emma Watterson, Medical Writer