The cervix is the entrance to the womb from the vagina. Cervical cancer develops in the cells of the cervix and mainly affects sexually active women aged between 30 to 45.
SYMPTOMS OF CERVICAL CANCER
It is important to note that in the early stages of cervical cancer there are often no symptoms. However, some symptoms should prompt you to see a GP as soon as possible to assess whether there is a risk of cervical cancer:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding e.g. during or after sex, in between periods or new bleeding after the menopause.
- Unpleasant smelling vaginal discharge
- Pelvic pain
- Pain when having sex
CERVICAL CANCER SCREENING
Cervical screening tests (smear tests) are done to prevent cervical cancer rather than diagnose it. During the test, some cells are removed from the cervix with a plastic brush which will be examined under a microscope to look for early changes that could develop into cancer if left ignored or untreated. If any abnormalities are found these would be treated to stop you from getting cervical cancer. The sample can also be checked for Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which is the virus that can cause abnormal cells.
The best way to prevent cervical cancer is by attending regular cervical screening tests at the times advised by your doctor. In the NHS Women aged 25 to 49 are offered screening every 3 years, and those aged 50 to 64 are offered screening every 5 years.
Cervical cancer cases have dramatically dropped since screening started and it is estimated that over 4000 women are prevented from developing cervical cancer every year in the UK as a result of screening. However, there are still around 3000 new cases diagnosed each year in the UK. Most of these occur in women who have not had screening.
HUMAN PAPPILLOMA VIRUS (HPV)
HPV is a very common virus that can be passed on by any type of sexual contact and even through skin-to-skin contact of the wider genital area. Two strains have been found to be responsible for most cases of cervical cancer – HPV 16 and 18. The HPV vaccine has been routinely offered to girls age 12 and 13 since 2008. Infection with HPV is very common, does not have any symptoms and will not cause cancer in most women.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE CERVICAL SCREENING CONSULTATION?
At London City Healthcare you are able to book your cervical screening consultation with female GPs with specialist interests in sexual health and gynaecology, meaning that your practitioner is highly competent at cervical screening consultations and carrying out smear tests. You will be seen in London City Healthcare’s clean, private and highly confidential setting. Your doctor will encourage you to voice any concerns you may have as well as talk you through any relevant cervical cancer risk factors.
For the smear test itself you will be asked to remove your clothing from the waist down so some women prefer to wear a loose skirt that can be pulled up. Lying back on the examination couch you bend your knees, put your ankles together and let the knees fall open. An instrument called a speculum is then gently inserted into the vagina and opened slowly once inside to allow the cervix to be seen. Using a small plastic brush cells are gently scraped from the cervix and sent to be examined.
The test is not painful but can be a little uncomfortable for some women. It helps significantly if you are able to relax as this prevents the muscles in the vaginal walls from tensing up and causing discomfort.
SCREENING TEST RESULTS
Smear tests can take a few days to come back after laboratory examination. As soon as they are available, your results and any relevant findings will be explained clearly with you and depending on these, further specialised investigations or referral for colposcopy (closer medical examination of the cervix by a gynaecologist) will be arranged.
An abnormal result does not mean cancer in the vast majority of cases but that cancer may develop at some time in the future. Of the women that are referred for further testing or treatment, most do not develop cervical cancer.
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