Everybody has choices about how their health. Some people hate any form of medical intervention. Others are very pro-screening. When it comes to cervical cancer – well any kind of cancer, it is not a pleasant diagnosis to have.
When I worked in gynaecology in the hospital system I remember a seeing a very ill woman who had stomach pain and vaginal bleeding. She did not believe in screening and had never had a mammogram or a smear test. Unfortunately for her, she had advanced cervical cancer and the treatments available to her were for her comfort rather than to cure her.
There has been a lot of emphasis put on screening women for cervical cancer as we know that it is generally a series of slowly progressive changes to the cells of the cervix. These cells are initiated by infection with a virus known as HPV which stands for human papillomavirus. The virus is transmitted through sexual activity. It is very common and symptomless infection and in the majority of people, their body deals with the infection, just like it would a common cold.
However in a small number of women, the infection does not clear and the virus remains dormant for years and it is in these women where cell changes occur and cervical cancer develops.
There are a number of different HPV viruses – of which 13 have a high risk of causing cervical cancer. HPV-16 and HPV-18 are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancers so these are the viruses targeted by the HPV vaccine.
In the UK 3100 women per year are diagnosed with cervical cancer – that is still an astounding figure considering the screening program in place. Some women do not get screened because they choose not to, but for others there can be fear and embarrassment. I have had one patient who had to have a close friend sit with her and hold her hand she was so terrified, and another patient who had to be sedated as their fear of the screening test was so severe, despite all we did to try and alleviate these fears. Some women also have a lack of understanding about cervical cancer and the screening test.
Cervical Cancer – UK Facts
- 3100 women diagnosed with cervical cancer per year
- 3000,000 women diagnosed with cervical changes per year
- The vaccine aims to prevent 70 percent of cervical cancers providing 80 percent of girls are immunised.
- Cervical Screening is for women aged 25-64 years (3-yearly to age 49, then 5-yearly to age 64).
- The screening programme is designed to detect cervical changes not cancer. If you experience intermittent bleeding between periods or an abnormal discharge, pain during sex or lower back pain, these symptoms should be investigated straight away.
Dr Deborah Brunt
This is a Guest post by my sister and GP Dr Deborah Brunt