20 Jan 2021
These are worrying times for us all. The last year has been like nothing we’ve ever known before with the coronavirus pandemic affecting all aspects of society, not least our healthcare system. The NHS has been put under tremendous strain during the various different waves of the pandemic and now that the number of cases is once again spiralling out of control, the system is struggling to cope.
One major concern during these times is for people who are suffering from cancer and other serious illnesses. As cases have surged, hospitals up and down the country have been forced to cancel non-urgent surgery and clinics, leaving millions of cancer patients worried about how their treatment and care will be affected.
Awareness weeks such as Cervical Cancer Prevention Week are more important now than ever to remind us all that we should be doing whatever we can to reduce the chances of becoming seriously ill. The screening process for cervical cancer that is in place across the UK can stop cancer before it starts and has been shown to save around 5,000 lives every year in England alone[i].
Often, cervical cancer may not cause any obvious symptoms, which is why it can sometimes go undetected. However, if you experience unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge, pain or discomfort during sex or unexplained pain in your lower back or between your hip bones, you should contact your GP.
If left undetected, cervical cancer can become more advanced or spread to other parts of the body, causing further symptoms such as a severe pain in your side or back, unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite, constipation, incontinence and swelling in your legs.
It is important to remember that cervical cancer is rare so it is likely that your symptoms happen for reasons. Try not to panic but your GP can give you any reassurance and support you may need.
Cervical screening is not a test for cancer. It’s a free health test that helps prevent cervical cancer. It is your choice whether you want to go for cervical screening but it is one of the best ways to protect yourself from developing the disease. It checks for a virus called high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) and can detect any abnormal cervical cells.
In the UK, you are automatically invited for cervical screening if you are registered as female with a GP surgery and aged between 25 and 64. Depending on the results of your test, you may be invited back every year, every 3 years, every 5 years or asked to go to colposcopy for more tests.
Going for cervical screening may make you anxious, particularly if it’s your first time, but it really is a quick and simple process that’s over within minutes. At your appointment, you will be given a private space to undress from the waist down, usually behind a curtain, and then asked to lie down on an examination bed with a paper sheet to cover the lower half of your body. A nurse will take a sample of cells from your cervix using a small, soft brush. The test may feel a bit strange but should not be painful. The nurse will put your sample cells into a small plastic container of liquid and these are sent to a lab for testing. That’s it. You can then get dressed and go about your day as normal.
During the pandemic, different areas of the country are operating their screening programmes in different ways so you should check with your local GP surgery but most areas are still inviting people for cervical screening. If you think you should have had an invitation but haven’t, it is best to contact your GP surgery.
You should get your results within 4 weeks of your appointment but be aware that this might be delayed because of the pandemic.
If you have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, you might be worried about how the sharp increase in coronavirus infections will affect your treatment, care and support. The NHS are reassuring patients that while the rapid rise in Covid-19 hospitalisations is putting more pressure on the service, cancer services remain an absolute priority during these worrying times. If you are at all concerned, contact your hospital team who will be able to tell you more.
Since 2008, girls aged 12 and 13 have been offered a vaccination against HPV, to protect against cancers such as cervical cancer. The vaccine is now offered to boys too, to prevent them getting more HPV-related cancers such as head and neck, anal and genital cancers.
Although the vaccine protects against the two types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer, it doesn’t protect against other types, so girls who have had the vaccine still need to go for cervical screening from the age of 25.
With any matter affecting your health, the sooner it is diagnosed, the higher the chances of successful treatment. If you have symptoms that are worrying you, don’t put off getting them checked out. The best place to get accurate health and information is the NHS website but most GP surgeries are operating online services, phone or video appointments so you can speak to a medical professional without having to visit the surgery.
[i] Public Health England figures, May 2019