Cervical cancer: The realities all women should know

Posted on: 24 January 2012 by 50connect editorial

Cervical Cancer Prevention Week starts today with research showing almost a third of women in the UK* (29%) say they have never been for any type of health screening.

Cervical cancer awarenessAround 2,900 women in the UK are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. However, it is one of the most preventable cancers, with deaths from the disease having fallen over the last 25 years, precisely because of large numbers of women undergoing cervical screenings. Many women are put off going for a screening owing to a lack of information on what it involves and anxiety about dealing with abnormal results. To help, Bupa is offering advice on the subject.

Dr Katrina Herren, Medical Director, Bupa Health and Wellbeing, says, “Cervical screening detects pre-cancerous cells which can develop into cervical cancer. Early detection of pre-cancerous cells is vitally important in preventing cervical cancer – so if your test does detect these abnormal cells, don’t panic! It means that the cells which could develop into the cancer have been detected and can be monitored closely or treated to prevent them developing into cancer.”
Dr Katrina Herren offers the following advice to women who are about to have a screening, or who have had ‘abnormal’ results:

What is a cervical screening?

A cervical screening is a simple procedure carried out by a doctor or qualified nurse which can detect pre-cancerous cells inside the cervix which can develop into cervical cancer. Early detection of changes to cervical cells is vitally important in minimising the impact of the disease, which is why all women over the age of 25 are encouraged to have cervical screens.

What happens during cervical screening?

A cervical screening test usually takes just a few minutes. You will be asked to undress from the waist down - you will be given a towel to put across your lap - and lie on your back on a couch, with your legs drawn up and knees apart. If this position is difficult for you to get into, your nurse or GP can take the test with you lying on your side. You may find the test uncomfortable but it isn't usually painful. Your nurse or GP will use an instrument called a speculum to gently open the vagina and take a cell sample from your cervix using a small brush. The sample will be sent to a laboratory for testing and you will receive the results in a letter a few weeks later.

How often should you have a cervical screening?

Women aged 25 and over are advised to have cervical screenings at least once every three years to detect changes to the cells in the cervix, according to the NHS.  As women get older this may change to once every five years.

What results am I likely to get?

Around nine out of 10 cervical screening results are classed as ‘normal’. About five in 100 tests show borderline or mild cell changes; these usually go back to normal by themselves and this will be monitored with further screening every six months. One in 100 tests shows moderate cell changes and one in 200 shows severe changes, which means further investigations will be required and treatment needed to remove the cells.

Sometimes the result may be 'inadequate' or 'unsatisfactory' because the sample was not good enough or the cells could not be seen clearly, for example, because of an infection. This happens in about one in every four tests. If this happens, another test will be scheduled.

What happens if my test results are ‘abnormal’?

In the case of an abnormal screening result, or symptoms of cervical cancer, your doctor will refer you to a gynaecologist for further tests to more closely examine the surface of the cervix, to see if the abnormal cells have spread and check your health. The type of treatment you might need will depend on the results of the examinations and your general health.

Your GP or nurse may ask you to have a colposcopy if your cervical screening results were abnormal. In a colposcopy, your doctor will use an instrument called a colposcope to examine your cervix. A colposcope acts like a magnifying glass, which helps your doctor or nurse to see the cells of your cervix in detail and close up.

If your doctor or nurse sees anything that looks abnormal, a biopsy will be taken and the cells sent to a laboratory to be checked. You may be given a local anaesthetic to numb the area before the biopsy is taken.
If no abnormal cells are found, you won't need any treatment. If your doctor or nurse finds abnormal cells, you may be given treatment there and then to remove the cells before they can develop into cervical cancer. Alternatively, your doctor or nurse may ask you to come back for treatment at another appointment.

The most common type of treatment is LLETZ. Your doctor or nurse will inject a local anaesthetic into your cervix. This will numb the area so you won’t feel any pain. Some women may notice a stinging sensation when the anaesthetic is injected – this settles down very quickly. A loop of fine wire with an electric current flowing through it is used to remove the abnormal cells from your cervix. This takes around five to 10 minutes.

Another type of investigation that may be undertaken when abnormal cells have been detected is a cone biopsy, where a small, cone-shaped section of abnormal tissue is taken from your cervix and is examined under a microscope. This is usually done under local anaesthetic. A cone biopsy may also be used as a treatment to remove pre-cancerous cells.

More information about these procedures:
Read about Colposcopy
Read about Cone biopsy

Find more information about cervical cancer and screenings.

A cervical smear test is just one of the tests included in the Bupa Female Health Assessment. For women who are primarily concerned with their breast and gynaecological health, Bupa Female Health offers a thorough check and the opportunity to discuss any health concerns you have. This 60 minute assessment focuses on the early detection of breast and gynaecological conditions as well as other health risks such as diabetes.

For more information about Bupa Female Health visit http://www.bupa.co.uk/individuals/health-assessments/female-health or call 0845 600 3458.

*Data taken from Bupa Health Pulse 2011. Research carried out by Ipsos MORI between 22nd April and 23rd May 2011 on 1021 women (aged 18+) in the UK.

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