January 21st-27th was cervical cancer prevention week in the UK, where charities everywhere try to educate and raise awareness of cervical cancer, HPV vaccines and smear tests. We’ve written about cervical cancer and screenings for the disease before, so we won’t go into too many details about the symptoms and causes, but we did want to highlight the brilliant campaign that Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust have been running this year, called #SmearforSmear
According to their website, “Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is the only UK charity dedicated to women, their families and friends affected by cervical cancer and cervical abnormalities.” They work tirelessly to help de-mystify the disease and support those who are affected by it. James Maxwell set up the charity in 1999 after his wife Jo passed away from cervical cancer. He and Jo wanted to make sure every woman affected by cervical cancer received support. One of the biggest efforts by Jo’s trust, however, is raising awareness of the prevention of cervical cancer, through screenings and vaccinations.
Cervical cancer is an abnormal growth of cells in the cervix, or womb. Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by a virus which can change the DNA makeup of the cells within the cervix. This is called the human papilloma virus or HPV. Since 2007, the HPV vaccine has been rolled out to 65 countries around the world, including the UK and US. While the HPV vaccine cannot prevent all forms of cervical cancer or even all strains of HPV, it does prevent infection from 2 high risk HPV strains, which account for 7 in every 10 cases of cervical cancer. This has dramatically decreased the amount of cases of cervical cancer and abnormal cells in those vaccinated, with some age groups seeing as much as an 86% decrease in cases. In the UK and US, the vaccination is now offered to both girls and boys aged 12-13, as both sexes can carry the virus which is spread through sexual contact.
Cervical screenings - Smear for Smear
Cervical screenings are offered on the NHS to all women above the age of 25 in the UK, and are recommended every 3 years. In the US, it is recommended to start screening at age 21 and get them every 3 years. Cervical screenings are known by many different terms but they all mean the same thing: papanicolaou test, pap test, pap smear, smear test, smear. It is a routine medical procedure, during which a sample of cells are taken from the cervix to be tested for signs of abnormality.
The benefits of regular cervical screenings could quite literally be the difference between life and death. Some cells in the cervix can become infected by HPV and start to mutate, and these are known as abnormal cells, or pre-cancerous cells. This means you don't necessarily have cancer, but if left untreated or not removed, they could lead to cervical cancer in the future. Once you have cervical cancer, the chances of overcoming it decrease rapidly as the days go on, so early detection of pre-cancerous cells, through regular screening, really is the best way to prevent it.
For this year’s cervical cancer prevention week, Jo’s Trust led a campaign called #SmearforSmear. The trust wanted to help make people aware of what a smear test is, what it involves, what they’re looking for and what happens after one. So many people are scared of smear tests and never go because of this, so the smear for smear campaign aimed to bust the myths surrounding the test and put people at ease of the procedure, encouraging them to go. Women everywhere, including some high profile celebrities, were encouraged to post a picture of themselves with smeared lipstick - an image which gains attention and therefore raises awareness of the campaign.
On their website, Jo’s Trust acknowledge the worries surrounding the test, whilst also explaining the process and giving helpful tips on how to cope with the experience and anxieties that come with it.
What happens in a smear test?
The test itself takes around 3 minutes, with the whole appointment lasting no longer than 15 minutes. You are asked to undress from the waist down, usually behind a screen, and then lie on a bed, on your back with your ankles together and your knees spread apart. The trained nurse will then insert a device called a speculum, which is designed to open up the vaginal canal and cervix to make it easier to get a sample from inside the cervix. This shouldn’t be painful but may feel strange and sometimes a little uncomfortable. The nurse will then insert a small brush into the cervix, and brush some of the cells away from the cervix walls. Again, this may feel peculiar but should not cause pain. Both the brush and speculum are then removed and the test is over. You can then get dressed again and await your results at home, which usually take a few weeks to be processed.
It is the speculum and brush, as well as the embarrassment of a physical examination, which puts people off the smear test, so knowing as much as possible about the process can help alleviate these worries, particularly if it is your first test or you have previously had a bad experience. There is a lot of information and resources on the Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust website, and we urge you to read all about it and help spread awareness of the test, and indeed the causes, preventions and symptoms of cervical cancer. Post a picture of you doing the #SmearforSmear today.
Cervical cancer signs and symptoms
Just to recap, we've put the main signs and symptom of cervical cancer below. The symptoms usually don't show themselves until the cancer is quite developed though, so screening really is the best way to keep on top of it. Remember, if you're experiencing any symptoms you're not sure of, place them into the Isabel Symptom Checker, use the 'where to now' feature to decide where to go, and discuss the results with a doctor.
The most noticeable symptom is vaginal bleeding, most commonly after sex. If you’re not sure whether the bleeding is due to your monthly period, keep a diary and show this to your doctor. Other symptoms include:
- Pain during sex
- An unpleasant smelling vaginal discharge
If the cancer may have spread to other areas around your cervix, you should also look out for:
- Blood in your urine
- Incontinence (loss of bladder control)
- Unexplained weight loss
- Bone pain
- Severe pain in your side or back
- Changes to your bladder and/or bowel habits
- Loss of appetite