With Cervical Cancer Prevention Week here, Beauty Daily by Clarins spoke to three leading health experts, explaining everything you need to know about cervical cancer, the misconceptions surrounding it, and the importance of taking a pap smear test.
Raising cervical cancer awareness and getting a pap smear saves 5,000 lives in the UK every year and prevents cervical cancers from developing.
“Cervical screening tests can pick up changes to your cells even if you look and feel healthy and have no symptoms,” Kate Sanger, Head of Policy and Communications at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, reveals.
January’s Cervical Cancer Prevention Week aims to raise awareness of cervical cancer and help end stigmas around the disease.
What is cervical cancer?
The WHO data reports 99% of cervical cancer cases are linked to infection with high-risk human papillomaviruses (HPV), a widespread virus transmitted sexually. So common, 4 in 5 women will get HPV at some point in their lifetime.
Before getting lost in the medical jargon, Dr Martin Hirsch, consultant gynaecologist at Oxford University Hospitals, NHS Foundation Trust, explains what HPV is and how you catch HPV.
“HPV is a type of virus and it has over 100 different types. Most people will acquire HPV through sexual intercourse and most infections clear up on their own. But some kinds of HPV (subtypes 16 and 18) can lead to genital warts and cause around 70% of all cervical cancers.”
Sanger added: “Some people feel worried or embarrassed because it’s classified as sexually transmitted infection (STI), but it is nothing to be ashamed of because HPV lives on our skin, it is easy to get and difficult to protect against completely.”
What are the risk factors for developing cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is more common among women who are less likely to have access to screening for cervical cancer.
Dr Hirsch explained: “Unfortunately, there is still a huge variation based on where you live. For example, a person in Malawi is five times more likely to get cervical cancer and more than ten times more likely to die from cervical cancer than someone in Western Europe.”
This is due to differences in the screening and health system infrastructure and higher rates of conditions that lower your immunity and allow the HPV to persist.
Other risk factors increase the likelihood of getting cervical cancer, such as smoking, having a family member who has had cervical cancer and using the contraceptive pill.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
“It is important to note that not everyone with cervical cancer will have symptoms which is why it is essential to follow a cervical screening program,” Dr Hirsch stresses.
The symptoms that can sometimes be associated with cervical cancer include abnormal or unscheduled vaginal bleeding, pain discomfort, or bleeding with intercourse.
How do you prevent cervical cancer stages?
It is strongly advised to get regular smear tests. However, it depends on your age. For women aged 25–49, the test should be every three years, while for women aged 50–64 is every five years. Women over 65 are only invited for screenings if they have recently had abnormal tests.
“220,000 women and people with a cervix every year are told they have cervical cell changes after their screening, and many more are given an HPV diagnosis. This can mean more tests and treatments, and for some, it can be an incredibly hard time,” Sanger said.
HPV in men: should men be getting tested for this?
“While men also carry HPV, cancers related to this are not common. Although men who receive anal intercourse are more likely to be infected with HPV and develop anal cancer,” Dr Hirsch explained.
There is no current approved HPV test or screening program for men. In addition, the use of barrier contraception such as condoms will prevent the spread of some infections but may not stop the transmission of HPV.
The pandemic is not a reason to skip a pap smear test
According to the survey conducted by The Eve Appeal, a gynaecological cancer charity, Covid-19 has stopped women from getting a smear test.
Nearly 1 in 3 women missed an appointment because of the pandemic despite receiving their invitation.
Worries about catching the coronavirus were their main reason for missing their appointment. Others did not want to attend the test, had a bad experience on their last screening, and believed it would be too difficult to take the test.
However, it looks like this has also been the case pre-Covid, with the NHS reporting that cervical screening (pap smear test) is at an all-time low.
“Cervical screening saves thousands of lives every year, but it’s not always easy. It can be hard for many reasons. This includes fear, embarrassment, having a physical disability, being a survivor of sexual violence, being a trans man and/or non-binary person with a cervix, cultural barriers and having other health conditions,” Sanger said.
Are there any HPV vaccines available?
The prophylactic vaccine is available as a precautionary measure to avoid HPV infection or disease, especially for girls and boys before their sexual debut. In the UK, girls and boys ages 9–14 are offered two doses of vaccine that protect against four types of HPV, including two linked to cancers and two that are known to cause genital warts. This is due to the change to a vaccine offering greater coverage against nine types of HPV in the coming year. Catch-up vaccinations are offered up to the age of 25 and to men who have intercourse with men if they are 45 or younger.
The therapeutic vaccine is administered after the individual has already contracted the disease or infection. Dr Karin Hellner, chief investigator for HPV001 (therapeutic HPV Vaccine) says that while the current vaccine has been a milestone in the fight against cervical cancer and other cancers associated with high-risk HPV, it is limited to women and men with no prior HPV exposure.
Hellner has been leading the trials for the therapeutic vaccine that aims to utilise the body’s own immune system to clear already-established HPV infections.
“If successful, therapeutic HPV vaccines could potentially eradicate disease caused by high-risk HPV, especially in parts of the population where access to prophylactic vaccination (and/or cervical screening) is limited,” she said.
Don’t fear the smear
Cervical Cancer Prevention Week organiser Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust encourages everyone to take part and raise awareness.
Join the movement between 23rd–29th January 2023 to raise awareness and together #WeCan work towards a future where cervical cancer is a thing of the past.
“We encourage everyone to talk about the test sensitively and supportively; not to say someone is ‘silly’ or ‘making excuses’ if they are struggling with the idea. No question about cervical screening is too big or small, and no concern too silly or strange,” Sanger said.
Awareness is not just about making people aware of the existence or risks but it’s to encourage those not to fear being tested.
“Pap smear can be an uncomfortable procedure and for those with previous traumatic experiences, it can be offered under sedation or general anaesthetic with your nurse or gynaecologist,” Dr Hirsch concludes.
Book an appointment today with your GP surgery. Call Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust free helpline on 0808 802 8000 or visit Jo’s Trust to join the campaign.