EARLY diagnosis is key when it comes to any form of cancer – increasing the chance of survival.
But some cancers are more deadly than others if left untreated – and cervical cancer is one of them.
Catch it at the earliest stage – stage 1 – and you have the highest chance of surviving it. But get diagnosed at stage 4, and you've only got a 5 per cent chance of surviving five years or longer.
That's why it's absolutely crucial that you know what changes to look out for and get them tested ASAP.
According to Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, around 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year in the UK.
It's the most common form of the disease in women aged 35 and under.
Over the past decade – despite the deaths of celebs like Jade Goody – the number of women attending screenings has dropped to the lowest level since records began in 1995, with nearly a third of women in the UK risking their lives by skipping their smear test.
That’s why earlier this year Fabulous partnered with cervical cancer charity Jo’s Trust to launch #CheersForSmears, a campaign aiming to ensure women across the UK attend their screenings, no matter what.
With around 3,200 women in the UK now being diagnosed with the disease every year – a number that is set to rise by around 40 per cent within 20 years – and one in three dying from it, it’s clear we’re facing a cervical cancer time bomb.
So, what early signs do you need to look out for?
“Not all women diagnosed with cervical cancer have symptoms, which is why it’s really important to attend cervical screening (smear tests) when invited. But, whatever your age, it’s equally important to be aware of cervical cancer symptoms," Imogen Pinnell, health information manager at Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust told The Sun.
Early signs can include:
1. Abnormal bleeding (during or after sex, between periods and also post-menopause)period
The most common and earliest sign of cervical cancer tends to be irregular bleeding.
It happens when the cancer cells grow on the tissue below the cervix.
It's an especially alarming sign in postmenopausal women who no longer have periods. There's no age limit to developing cervical cancer.
2. Unusual vaginal discharge
Everyone's discharge is different, so it's a case of knowing what is normal for you.
If you find that the colour, smell and consistency has changed, then that's something you really need to have checked out.
When cancer lacks oxygen, it can cause an infection which leads to strange smelling discharge.
3. Discomfort or pain during sex
Pain during sex can be a sign of a number of different issues, but one is cervical cancer.
Because the disease often comes with no symptoms, pain during intercourse is one of the key indicators. It can be a sign that the cancer is spreading to surrounding tissues.
4. Lower back pain
It could be down to you straining something in the gym, or it could be a warning sign that something's wrong with your reproductive organs.
Persistent pain – just one off twinges – in the lower back, pelvis or appendix can be a symptom of cervical cancer.
5. Unintended weight loss
While effortless weight loss might sound like the answer to many of our prayers, it's never a good sign if it happens seemingly without cause.
A loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss tend to be signs that the body isn't working properly – it's trying to conserve energy. If you notice that you're not eating as you normally do, go to your GP.
How we can make a difference – with #CheersForSmears
In many surgeries, smear tests are only available at certain times or days, making it difficult for some women to book an appointment.
That’s why we've launched the #CheersForSmears campaign – to call on women to make those vitally important appointments, and for GPs to offer more flexible screening times and make testing available outside of office hours and at weekends.
We also want employers to play their part in helping to ensure that their female employees can attend potentially life-saving cervical screenings if they are unable to get an appointment outside of working hours.
Help get your employer involved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
As the disease progresses, it can also result in:
- increased need to pee
- blood in pee
- bleeding from the bottom
- lower limb swelling
What to do if you do experience any of these symptoms
If you experience any of these (do not wait for all of them to appear, just one is enough!), then make an appointment to talk to your GP immediately.
It doesn't matter if you've had a recent smear test or not – or if you're under 25 and haven't been offered one yet. Although it's rare, cervical cancer can strike earlier.
"Remember, cervical cancer is rare and all of these symptoms are often caused by something other than cancer," Imogen says.
"But, if you have any symptoms, it is important to get checked by your GP straight away."
Often, women don't have any symptoms early on and that's why it's so absolutely crucial that you go for a regular smear.
Cervical cancer myths – busted
There's a lot of misinformation about the disease out there and that's putting loads of us at risk.
Imogen busts open a few of the most common myths.
1. HPV is rare: False
HPV is actually really common! In fact, 4 out of 5 people (80 per cent) will have the virus at some point in their lives.
In many cases, our immune systems will get rid of HPV without us ever knowing we had it.
That’s why removing stigma around the virus is so important.
2. Only promiscuous people get HPV: False
You can get HPV the first time you have sexual contact, so it doesn’t matter how many people you’ve had sex with.
The virus can also lie dormant in your body for years – even decades – so you could still have the virus if you’ve been with the same person for a long time.
3. Smear tests are a test for cervical cancer: False
A smear test aims to find changes (abnormalities) to cells in the cervix at an early stage, before they develop into cervical cancer.
So it actually prevents 75 per cent of cervical cancers from ever developing.
4. Smear tests should hurt: False
A smear test should not hurt. For most people, smear tests may be slightly uncomfortable but are not painful.
But we know it’s not always an easy test, so if you do find it painful or have worries, there are things that can help.
Speak to your nurse about ways to make the smear test better for you.
5. Only young people get cervical cancer: False
Cervical cancer affects women of all ages, which is why it’s important to attend smear tests when you are invited – attending helps reduce your risk of developing it.
6. If you’ve had the HPV vaccine, you don’t need to attend a smear test: False
If you have had the HPV vaccine, you are protected against at least 70% of cervical cancers.
However, you are not fully protected against all cervical cancers, so going for smear tests when invited is still important.
So, if you're over 25 then make sure that you're up to do with your smear tests.
If you're under 25, try to ensure that you're totally aware of what's going on with your body and seek urgent medical attention if anything from the list above starts to happen.
Remember, doctors have seen and heard it all before – there's absolutely no need to be embarrassed when talking about your gynaecological health.
In fact, doing so might well save your life.
If you have any questions or worries, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust have a team of trained experts to help.
You can call their Helpline on 0808 802 8000 or visit the website at jostrust.org.uk
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