What causes cervical cancer?
Most cases of cervical cancer happen after an infection with a high-risk type of the human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV is passed from one person to another during sex. Almost all sexually active individuals will be infected with HPV at some time in their lives. Usually, this is nothing to worry about, and your immune system will get rid of the virus from your body.
However, if you have a long-term infection of high-risk HPV, cells in the cervix can become abnormal. This can sometimes turn into cancer.
What are the main risk factors for cervical cancer?
As well as HPV infection, there are several key risk factors for developing cervical cancer.
- Smoking tobacco – your risk of getting cervical cancer becomes higher the more you smoke.
- Family history – having a parent or sibling with cervical cancer can increase your chance of getting it.
- Having HIV (the infection that causes AIDS) or a condition that makes it hard for you to fight infection.
- Using the combined oral contraceptive pill, also known as ‘the pill’, for a long period of time. There is a slightly higher risk after five years of use. This risk doubles after 10 years.
What are the warning signs of cervical cancer?
You may have no symptoms in the early stages of cervical cancer. Some people show no symptoms even in the later stages. However, here are some common signs to look out for.
- Unusual vaginal bleeding – you may bleed from your vagina at unusual times. This could be after sex, after the menopause, or in between periods.
- Pain or discomfort during sex.
- A change in discharge – your discharge may be watery in texture, contain blood, or have an odour.
- Pain in the pelvis (the area in between your hip bones, in the lower part of your tummy).
How can I reduce my risk of cervical cancer?
You can reduce some risk factors for cervical cancer by making certain lifestyle choices. It’s important for you to know whether you’re at a higher risk, so you can look out for signs. It’s also essential that you attend regular health checks.
Below are some of the main ways you can reduce your risk of getting HPV or cervical cancer.
- HPV vaccine. It’s important to get vaccinated against HPV because this can help protect you from the types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine is most commonly given to children aged 12 to 13. But if you’re younger than 26 and haven’t had the vaccine, you can speak with your doctor about getting it.
- Avoid or stop smoking. Smoking can increase your risk of cervical cancer.
- Practice safe sex. Using condoms during sex can reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections, like HPV, being passed from one person to another.
- Screening tests. Cervical screening – also known as a ‘smear’ test – tests for HPV and can help prevent cervical cancer from developing. If you’re aged between 25 and 64 and are registered as female with a GP surgery, you’ll be invited to screening every 3 to 5 years.
Being aware of the signs and risk factors of cervical cancer and attending regular screening appointments can save your life. If you have any questions or concerns, don’t be afraid to discuss these with your doctor. Watch the animation below for information about cervical screening.