What is cervical cancer? Symptoms, causes and prevention

According to Cancer Research UK, around 3,200 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed every year in the UK. Most new incidents occur in people aged 30 – 34, but adult women can develop it at any age. Symptoms can often be difficult to spot or absent, making it difficult to detect. However, there are certain warning signs to look out for and measures you can take to help prevent getting cervical cancer.

This guide gives an overview of the disease, including the signs, causes, prevention and treatment options available as well as other pieces of useful information.

What is cervical cancer?

The cervix, or neck of the womb, is the lower part of a woman’s uterus. It is an area of muscular tissue which leads from the uterus into the vagina. The outer surface of the cervix is called the ‘exocervix’ and is covered in skin like cells called squamous cells. The inside of the cervix is called the ‘endocervix’ and covered in glandular cells which produce mucus. Where these two types of cells meet is called the ‘transformational zone’ and it is here that most cervical cancers start. A major cause of cervical cancer is infection with HPV (human papilloma virus).

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is particularly difficult to diagnose because it often has little to no symptoms. However, some signs of cervical cancer might include:

  • Blood spots or bleeding between or following periods
  • Menstrual bleeding that is longer and heavier than usual
  • Bleeding after intercourse, douching, or a pelvic examination
  • Increased vaginal discharge
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Bleeding after menopause
  • Unexplained, persistent pelvic and/or back pain

It is important to keep in mind that these symptoms are quite common and they could be a sign of something else. If you are experiencing any of these cervical cancer symptoms, you need to discuss it with your doctor.

Cervical cancer signs are not always obvious, and therefore the most effective way of detecting the disease is through a routine smear test. This can diagnose early signs of cell mutations in the cervix, also known as dysplasia. These changes do not mean that a woman has cancer and the cells may go back to normal themselves. However, without treatment some of these cells might develop into cancer.

It is rare for a smear test to find that a cancer has developed, particularly in women who are being screened regularly. If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, it will be categorised into one of four stages. Stage 1 means that the cancer is contained within the cervix. If the cancer spreads to tissue in the surrounding area, it becomes Stage 2. Stage 3 occurs when the cancer spreads to lymph nodes in the pelvis or abdomen. Stage 4 cervical cancer is most severe, and it means that the cancer has spread to the bladder, rectum or other parts of the body. Each stage requires a different method of treatment.

What causes cervical cancer?

As previously mentioned, the major cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a common group of viruses with over 100 different types, and it causes benign skin growths (warts) to appear on certain areas of the skin or genitals. Genital HPV is spread through sexual intercourse and other kinds of sexual activity such as sharing a sex toy.

The majority of sexually active women are likely to contract a form of HPV in their lifetime. In most cases, HPV can go undetected and the body’s immune system will clear the infection without any symptoms occurring. However, in other cases the infection can lead to cervical cancer. Some strains of HPV are more dangerous than others, for example, HPV 16 and 18 are responsible for about 70% of cervical cancers.

Whilst it is still unknown why some women experience HPV symptoms and some do not, certain sexual habits and patterns may increase a woman’s risk of contracting HPV and developing cervical cancer. These include:

  • Having sex at an early age
  • Having multiple sexual partners
  • Having a partner or many partners who take part in high-risk sexual activities

Some other risk factors and potential cervical cancer causes include:

  • Smoking
  • A weakened immune system
  • Having had chlamydia
  • A family history of cervical cancer
  • Having a baby before you were 17 years old
  • A diet low in vitamins and nutrients
  • Having had a child
  • Taking the contraceptive pill for longer than 5 years
  • Having previously had certain cancers e.g. vagina  or urinary tract
  • If your mother took the hormonal drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant with you

Cervical cancer prevention and treatment

Due to the unpredictable nature of symptoms, the best way to detect and prevent cervical cancer is by having a regular smear test at your GP practice. An instrument called a speculum is used to gently open the vagina, and then a small brush is used to take a sample of cervical cells which are examined in a lab for any abnormalities. It is recommended that women should have a smear test every 3-5 years, depending on their age.

If you wish to perform your own HPV test from the comfort of your own home, Bluecrest offer a convenient, non-invasive home testing kit. Find out more here.

Another key cervical cancer prevention method is the HPV vaccine, which is offered to girls and boys when they’re 12 -13 years old. The vaccine protects against HPV strains 6, 11, 16 and 18. Types 16 and 18 cause over 70% of cervical cancers, and types 6 and 11 cause around 90% of genital warts. There are typically 2 doses of the vaccine, which are given 6-24 months apart. Older teens (over the age of 15) will need 3 doses, as they tend not to respond as well to 2 doses as younger people do.

Whilst the vaccine can significantly reduce the risk of cervical cancer, it does not guarantee that you won’t contract it. Therefore, it is still important to attend smear tests when you’re called for them to further minimise any risk.

Some other tips on how to prevent cervical cancer include:

  • Giving up smoking
  • Practising safe sex
  • Limiting sexual partners

If you have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, there are a number of treatments available. These include:

  • Surgery: A trachelectomy (removal of the cervix / upper part of the vagina) or a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus).
  • Radiation therapy: High energy X-ray to kill cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy: Cytotoxic (anti-cancer) drugs circulate in the bloodstream to disrupt the growth of cancer cells.
  • Targeted therapy: Drugs which inhibit blood supply to cancer cells to curb their growth.

Depending on the stage or type of cervical cancer, doctors might recommend a combination of treatments to treat cervical cancer e.g. chemoradiotherapy. Discover more information on cervical cancer treatments here.

What does cervical cancer discharge look like?

While discharge does not always occur if cervical cancer is present, if your discharge is in any way abnormal talk to your doctor.

Do you get pain with cervical cancer?

Many people will not feel any discomfort if they have cervical cancer. Some people with cervical cancer get pain in the lower back or pelvis, usually during or after sex. Pain could also be related to another condition, but if you are experiencing discomfort or pain it is best to consult a healthcare professional.

How long does cervical cancer take to develop?

Cervical cancer usually takes years to develop, which is why cervical smears are only necessary from between 3-5 years.

Can you get cervical cancer if not sexually active?

It is rare for women to contract cervical cancer if they are not sexually active, as the majority of cases develop as a result of sexually transmitted HPV. Researchers also believe that having sex from a young age can also increase a woman’s risk, as the cervix undergoes changes during puberty, making the area more vulnerable to damage.

How do I keep my cervix healthy?

The best way to keep your cervix healthy is by going to your smear test whenever you are called for one. Many women may feel intimidated or embarrassed by the prospect of a smear test, but this needs to be overcome.

Aside from attending your smear test, other ways to look after your cervix include getting vaccinated, practising safe sex and not smoking.

What food prevents cervical cancer?

Although there is no specific diet plan that can prevent cervical cancer, boosting the immune system to fight HPV and keep cells healthy can be achieved by consuming a diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.

How do I get tested for cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer can be difficult to diagnose due to its lack of symptoms, but it is also highly preventable if you know the correct measures to take. By showing up for your routine smear tests, getting vaccinated, practising safe sex, not smoking and eating a healthy, balanced diet, you can significantly reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer.

If you’re a woman over the age of 40 and would like to find out more about the  cancer assessments offered by Bluecrest Wellness, please visit our female cancer assessment page for information.