THEY say knowledge is power – and that’s certainly true when it comes to cancer.
Although it may be uncomfortable to address, being aware of the condition can literally be a life-saver.
Especially when it’s a form of the disease which isn’t visible to the naked eye, such as cervical cancer, which affects thousands of women every year.
So, here’s everything you need to know about the disease, including how to spot the signs and the best ways to treat it.
What exactly is cervical cancer?
The question may seem an obvious one, but it’s important to know exactly what you’re dealing with.
Cervical cancer is defined as when the disease starts in the neck of the womb, otherwise known as the cervix, according to Cancer Research UK.
In 2014 there were 3,224 new cases – and 890 deaths, which means its the most common form of the disease in women under 35.
Generally, it’s caused by persistent infections with the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is contracted through sex. Thankfully, most young women in the UK are immunised against it, although boys aren’t.
Two strains of the HPV virus (HPV 16 and HPV 18) are known to be responsible for most cases, but most women who have them don’t develop cervical cancer.
What are the symptoms?
As noted on NHS Direct, there are no obvious symptoms during the early stages of cervical cancer.
However, vaginal bleeding can often be a tell-tale sign – especially if it occurs after sex, in between periods or after the menopause.
That said, abnormal bleeding is not a definite sign of the condition – just a possible indicator.
That said, it should be investigated by your GP as soon as possible.
They can refer you to a specialist within two weeks if they have further concerns.
How can I screen for cervical cancer?
Cervical screenings, or smear tests, are a preventative swab used to detect abnormal cells on the cervix – the entrance to the womb from the vagina.
Detecting these cells and then removing them can prevent cervical cancer.
It’s not a test for cervical cancer itself.
Most women’s results show everything is totally normal – the test picks up abnormalities in around one in 20 women.
Cervical screening is carried out under the NHS Cervical Screening Programme, which was introduced in the 1980s.
Every woman over the age of 25 who has a GP is invited for screening – and it doesn’t matter if you’re sexually active or not.
It is possible for women of all ages to develop cervical cancer, but it’s extremely rare in women under 25.
If diagnosed, how is the disease treated?
The type of treatment depends on the stage and severity of each case, but there are several ways to treat cervical cancer.
Often, it’s possible to have surgery without undergoing a hysterectomy (the removal of the womb) although this is a rather routine procedure.
Alternatively, radiotherapy is a common option for those with early stages of the disease.
Meanwhile, those with more serious cases may need both surgery and radiotherapy, plus additional chemotherapy.
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What are the odds of overcoming it?
Fortunately, the condition is almost completely preventable and can be forecast with regular smear tests.
And, even if you – or a loved one – is diagnosed, it has an average survival rate of 63 per cent, according to a 2010 study which analysed patients living for ten years or more after their initial diagnosis.
For women who have stage 1 of the disease, survival for more than five years can be 99 per cent.
For stage 2, that becomes 60-90 per cent, while stage 3 is 30-50 per cent.
Those with stage 4 cervical cancer have a one-in-five chance of combating the illness and living more more than half a decade.
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