Every day 9 women in the UK are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 2 women will lose their lives to the disease. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35 but is largely preventable thanks to cervical screening and the HPV vaccination programme.
But, statistics show that the number of women aged 25-29 years of age being screened for cervical cancer is the lowest in any age group and numbers attending for screening are falling year on year. Surveys undertaken by cancer charities indicate embarrassment and a lack of understanding of the causes of cervical cancer may be behind the fall in numbers attending*.
Data from Hampshire, Dorset and the Isle of Wight, covering January-March 2017, show that of over 400,000 eligible women aged 25-29, over 100,000 had not had taken up cervical screening with the last three and a half years.
The number of women dying from cervical cancer has halved over the past 28 years as a result of the NHS screening programme as well as improvement in treatment.
Despite this success over 5,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. Some of these women diagnosed with cervical cancer have delayed coming forward for screening which has impacted on their ability to have early changes treated.
Dr Liz Mearns, Medical Director based in NHS England’s Southampton office said: “We have noticed a fall in attendance of younger women over the past few years, and are concerned that this trend may increase due to misunderstanding of the level of protection that the HPV vaccination offers.
The first girls who were vaccinated against HPV are now eligible for screening as they reach their 25th birthday. Although they are protected against the two most common HPV types that cause 70% of cervical cancers, the risk is not completely eliminated and screening is still an important part of preventing cancer.”
NHS England and Public Health England are supporting Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, which runs from January 22-28. The week aims to raise awareness of the importance of cervical screening and its role in preventing cancer, as well as encouraging women to go for their screening test when invited.
Dr Mearns added: “It is really important for women to understand the importance of attending cervical screening when they receive a letter from their GP as it can detect pre-cancer abnormalities, which, if left untreated, may develop into cancer. Screening is for people without symptoms as a preventative measure.
“The screening test is relatively simple, takes about 5 minutes and is performed by the Practice Nurse at your GP Surgery. 95% of results will be normal and of those that are not, the vast majority can be treated very easily and will never develop in to cancer. I urge women who may have received a letter and decided not to attend to reconsider and make an appointment – it really is very quick, it could prevent you needing more invasive treatment later on and could ultimately save your life.”
NHS England’s Screening and Immunisation teams work with GP practices to increase awareness and are supporting Cervical Cancer Prevention Week.
Sarah from Dorset was diagnosed with Stage One Cervical Cancer in 2012, at the age of 43, she says “Without doubt cervical screening saved my life. I have never missed an appointment and so when I was called for one in 2012, I went without hesitation. The appointment only took a few minutes and by the time I had chatted with the nurse about the weather, it was all over.
Unfortunately, this time my results came back as abnormal and I was quickly referred for further tests. I was very lucky as the cancer was picked up so early I only needed surgery, I didn’t need any further treatment. From diagnosis to surgery was just a month, everything happened very quickly.
That was over five years ago, I no longer need to see my consultant and it is something I can put behind me.
If I could give any women a message about screening, I would say ‘Go, don’t leave it’ It’s not the nicest thing to do but it really doesn’t take long and the sooner anything suspicious is picked up, the better the outcome. If I had ignored my appointment the world would have one less daughter, sister and mother.”
Women can reduce their risk of cervical cancer by
• Practicing safe sex. Condoms can help reduce the risk of being infected with HPV
• Not smoking – The risk of developing cervical cancer if you are a non smoker, on average, half that of a woman who is smoker
• Attending cervical screening when invited: this can help to find cervical abnormalities and HPV infections before they are able to develop into cervical cancer.
• Vaccination: getting the HPV vaccination if you are eligible (for girls at school in Year 8) will protect you from the high-risk HPV types 16 and 18 that cause 70% off all cervical cancers.