As it’s Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, we try to explain in simple terms a little more about cervical cancer, the symptoms and causes. From the outset, it’s important to emphasise that there is no 100% effective method to prevent cervical cancer and therefore it is crucial that women continue to have regular cervical smear tests.
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that develops in a woman’s cervix (the entrance to the womb from the vagina). Cancer of the cervix often has no symptoms in its early stages. Therefore it is vital that we educate ourselves and our children around prevention, vaccinations and testing.
As noted, cancer of the cervix often has no symptoms in its early stages. If you do have symptoms, the most common is unusual vaginal bleeding, which can occur after sex, in between periods or after the menopause. Abnormal bleeding doesn’t mean that you definitely have cervical cancer, but it should be investigated by your GP as soon as possible. If your GP thinks you might have cervical cancer, you should be referred to see a specialist within two weeks.
What Causes Cervical Cancer?
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus that can be passed on through any type of sexual contact with a man or a woman. There are more than 100 different types of HPV, many of which are harmless. However, some types of HPV can cause abnormal changes to the cells of the cervix, which can eventually lead to cervical cancer.
Two strains of the HPV virus (HPV 16 and HPV 18) are known to be responsible for 70% of all cases of cervical cancer. These types of HPV infection don’t have any symptoms, so many women won’t realise they have the infection. However, it’s important to be aware that these infections are relatively common and most women who have them don’t develop cervical cancer.
Can I Prevent Cervical Cancer?
There are many ways in which you can lessen your risk of contracting cervical cancer, however, taking these precautions cannot fully protect you and it is pivotal that you continue to get cervical checks on a regular basis once you have become sexually active.
Most cases of cervical cancer are linked to an infection with certain types of human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV can be spread through unprotected sex, so using a condom can reduce your risk of developing the infection. However, the virus isn’t just passed on through penetrative sex – it can be transmitted during other types of sexual contact, such as skin-to-skin contact between genital areas and by using sex toys.
Screening for Cervical Cancer
Over the course of many years, the cells lining the surface of the cervix undergo a series of changes. In rare cases, these precancerous cells can become cancerous. However, cell changes in the cervix can be detected at a very early stage and treatment can reduce the risk of cervical cancer developing. An abnormal cervical screening test doesn’t mean you definitely have cancer. Most abnormal results are caused by an infection or the presence of treatable precancerous cells, rather than cancer itself.
Cervical Cancer Vaccination
The HPV vaccine works in the same way as other vaccines. The body reacts by making special proteins, called antibodies, which help the immune system fight and clear the HPV infection so it can’t cause cancer. The vaccine works best for girls and boys who have not been exposed to the virus through sexual activity although HPV vaccine can also be given to adults up to 26 years of age. In Ireland, the HPV vaccine is offered free of charge to all girls in their 1st year of second level school. The vaccine is given through injection into the upper part of the arm in two doses, six months apart, via a school-based programme. However, in specific instances some girls will be invited to special HSE clinics for their vaccines.
The vaccine is recommended by
- the World Health Organization
- the International Federation of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
- the National Immunisation Advisory Committee
You can reduce your chances of getting cervical cancer by not smoking. People who smoke are less able to get rid of the HPV infection from the body, which can develop into cancer. For more information and advice on giving up smoking, see our blog: Never Quit Quitting
If I Have Had the HPV Vaccine, Do I Still Need to Get Tested?
YES! The vaccine does not protect you against all types of HPV. The vaccine targets the main HPV types. If you have been exposed to the virus already, the vaccine may not protect you. It reduces your risk of cervical cancer but does not remove it. So, it is important that all women, aged 25 to 60, continue to have regular cervical smear tests.
Can the Vaccine Be Given to Boys?
Yes – HPV vaccines have also been shown to be effective in preventing infection in men. This is not recommended as part of the school programme in Ireland at present. If you wish to get your son vaccinated you will need to pay for the vaccine and the administration of the vaccine privately with your doctor.
The vaccination of teenage boys increases the preventative effects of the vaccine against other cancers, such as anal cancer, where HPV infection can be associated and also prevents HPV-vaccinated boys passing the infection to unvaccinated partners.
In Ireland, the Government launched a national cervical screening programme in 2008 called CervicalCheck. This programme provides free smear tests to women aged 25-60. For more details about this service in your area, call 1800 45 45 55, visit www.cervicalcheck.ie or contact your local GP.
For more information, you can contact the Irish Cancer Society on Freephone 1800 200 700 or visit www.cancer.ie