20th -26th January 2020 is Cervical Cancer Awareness Week, an opportunity to raise awareness of this condition and how you can ensure it is detected.
Cervical cancer can affect people at any age but primarily affects people at primarily 30 – 45 years of age. Most cervical cancers are caused by a common sexually transmitted infection called human papillomavirus (HPV) – this is made up of a group of viruses (over 100 types!).
While HPV infections can go without causing life changing problems, a number of these viruses can cause the cervix to become infected, which can potentially go undetected due to producing no visible symptoms.
If the body is unable to clear this HPV infection naturally, there is a risk of abnormal cells developing, which could become cancerous.
Quick facts about HPV
- At some point in our lives, 4 in 5 of us will get at least one type of HPV – in most cases the immune system will get rid of it. Around 90% of HPV infections clear within 2 years.
- HPV infections do not usually have any symptoms, so you may not even know you had it.
- HPV lives on our skin, so it is easy to get and difficult to completely protect against.
- You are at risk of getting HPV from your first sexual contact, whatever that is – it doesn’t have to be penetrative sex.
- It is possible to have HPV for a long time without knowing about it, so it is hard to know when we got HPV or who we got it from.
- Cervical screening (a smear test) can find a high-risk HPV virus and changes early, before it develops into cancer.
How can you reduce your risk of cervical cancer?
The first line of defence against cervical cancer is often the HPV Vaccination – this is offered for free to girls and boys in schools between the ages of 11 to 13, depending on where they live in the UK. Those that were offered the HPV vaccine in school but missed getting it can have it for free up to age 25.
Some people, like men who have sex with men and transgender people, may be able to have the HPV vaccine free. You can also pay to have the HPV vaccine privately.
Another way of helping to detect if you are at risk of cervical cancer is through having a cervical screening, often known as a smear test! This is a free health test available on the NHS – it is not a test for cancer, but check for cervical cell changes that could become cancerous later on.
Cervical screening is offered to women, trans and non-binary people with a cervix – in the UK, you are automatically invited for cervical screening if you are between the ages of 25 to 64 and/or registered as female with a GP surgery. You’ll be invited for a screening every 3 years between age 25 and 49 and every 5 years between age 50 and 64.
In the UK, cervical screening help to prevent about 75% of cervical cancers, and along with the HPV vaccine, is the best way to protect against cervical cancer.