As part of Cervical Health Awareness Month, Consultant Gynaecological Oncologist Dr Adeola Olaitan offers the following timely advice to women of all ages:
Every year 3000 women in the UK are diagnosed with cervical cancer and it is the most common form of cancer in women aged 35 and under. Cervical cancer forms in the tissues of the cervix at the entrance to the womb. Over the course of many years the cells lining the surface of the cervix undergo a series of changes and occasionally can become cancerous. However, these changes to the cells in the cervix can be detected under a microscope at a very early stage. In routine cervical screening, which is also often referred to as the smear test, cells are taken from the cervix to be checked for the presence of any abnormalities. If any are discovered then appropriate treatment can be given that will reduce the risk of cervical cancer actually developing. This is why it is so important for women to attend for screening when they are invited to do so under the NHS National Screening Programme.
In the majority of cases cervical cancer is caused by infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). This is a very common virus that most of us will catch at some point in our lives. In most cases, the virus does not do any harm as our immune systems gets rid of the infection but sometimes it can persist and lead to health problems. There are actually more than 100 different strains of HPV but two particular strains called HPV16 and HPV18 are known to be responsible for 70% of all cases of cervical cancer. However, there is a vaccine against HPV that is offered to girls aged 12 to 13 as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme. This is delivered largely through secondary schools, and consists of three injections over a period of 12 months. This vaccine helps to protect against cervical cancer.
I would like to stress that the most effective way of preventing cervical cancer is for women to have regular cervical screening and for younger women to have the HPV vaccine. Cervical cancer is preventable and if detected early enough it is very treatable.