Cervical cancer affects young woman more than most other forms of cancer. In fact, in the UK as many as eight women get diagnosed with cervical cancer every day on average. Three of these women will go on to lose their lives to it.
But it can be prevented. Primarily through screening, which is why it's so important for women from the age of 25 to attend their smear tests when the NHS invites them to. However, like so many other things right now, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted access to smear tests.
"While cervical screening is continuing across most of the country, we know in some areas this is not the case," Imogen Pinnell, health information manager at Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, tells Cosmopolitan UK. "Pressures from COVID including staff having to isolate and high numbers of ill patients can mean some GP surgeries are struggling to provide cervical screening at the moment, or may have less appointments available."
If your cervical screening has been put on hold, it's even more vital to be aware of any changes in your body, and not to dismiss any new symptoms as 'normal' just because you know they can be fairly common.
Research last year from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust showed that almost half of 18-24 year old women believed vaginal bleeding to be normal or expected, when in actuality it is one of the key symptoms of cervical cancer and should generally be monitored and investigated. Over half of the 18-24-year-old females surveyed who had experienced unusual vaginal bleeding admitted to the charity that they did not tell their GP.
As health expert Pinnell points out, "cervical cancer takes many years, not months, to develop and remains rare," meaning it’s unlikely you are unlikely to develop it in the time that your appointment is delayed. That said, with access to screenings being harder to come by at the moment, it places more importance on being aware of the onset of any new symptoms, which may include unusual vaginal bleeding, pain during sex, changes to vaginal discharge or pain in your lower back/between your hip bones.
It goes without saying that, in the most part, any of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by reasons other than cervical cancer. But on the off-chance they are caused by cancer, early detection is key. So pay attention to your body, don't be too quick to dismiss anything new as 'probably fine', and reach out to your GP for help and advice.
Here, Dr. Jan Schaefer, Chief Medical Officer at MEDIGO, outlines some of the early signs of cervical cancer in more detail:
1. Irregular bleeding
"One of the most common and early signs of cervical cancer is irregular bleeding, which can happen between periods or after sex. Typically, this symptom begins to occur when the cancer cells grow on the tissue below the cervix. This is an especially alarming sign in postmenopausal women who no longer have periods."
2. Unusual discharge
"Another warning sign of cervical cancer could be unusual vaginal discharge, as defined by colour, smell or consistency. This happens when the cancer begins to lack oxygen, causing an infection that leads to discharge and a strange smell. While vaginal discharge can be a symptom of many other things, vaginal discharge that persists over a long period of time is definitely worth seeing a GP about."
3. Pain during sex
"Early stages of cervical cancer typically don’t have any symptoms, but pain during intercourse, and bleeding afterwards, could be a sign that the cancer is spreading to the surrounding tissues."
4. Unusual weight loss
"A loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss can be symptoms of a number of cancers, including cervical cancer. It is a particularly telling sign if weight loss persists, no matter how much food is consumed."
5. Sore legs
"When cervical cancer grows, it might start to press against the nerves in the lower back, which can lead to leg pain and some swelling. Swelling and pain separately can be a symptom of a number of different conditions, but together they could indicate cervical cancer."
6. Lower back pain
"Persistent pain in the lower back, pelvis or appendix area can also be a warning sign of cervical cancer, as pains in that region can be associated with reproductive organs. However, this is only a symptom of cervical cancer that has become quite advanced, so is only something to really worry about when it coincides with the above symptoms."
"It is worth noting that while the above can be warning signs of cervical cancer, they can also be indicative of a number of other health conditions," adds Dr Jan. "The only way to know for certain if your symptoms could be cervical cancer is to get a smear test, which will detect any cancerous cells."
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