by Dr Yuheng Zhou (All views her own)
2020 was an unprecedented year for our national health service and we had to make huge changes to our services in both the primary care setting (our GPs) and secondary settings (our district general hospitals). Lots of routine check ups and appointments were rescheduled, cancelled, changed to virtual clinics, or not attended.
Routine cancer screening was one of the areas where regular appointments were being postponed. Smear tests are now back up and running and as January 18-24th is Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, this is my focus for the month.
Cervical cancer facts and figures:
There are around 3,200 new cervical cancer cases in the UK every year. Incidence rates are highest in females aged 30-34 years. The majority of cases are caused by a type of Human Papillomavirus (HPV). 21% of cases are linked to smoking, with research showing that smoking doubles your lifetime risk of getting cervical cancer.
Why is cervical screening important?
The smear test checks for the health of your cervix and it is a test to prevent cancer. The sample is taken with a small soft brush from your cervix and checked for certain types of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) that can cause changes to the cells. This is a very common group of viruses (more than 100 types) and most people will get some type of HPV in their lifetime.
In most cases, your body will get rid of the virus without any problems, but certain types of the virus can stay for longer in the body and can cause changes to the cells. These may then become cervical cancer if not treated. These types do not cause symptoms, and so people do not realise they have it.
The clinics will be COVID secure, and health professionals will be wearing appropriate PPE and masks.
When will I be eligible for screening?
All women and people with a cervix between the ages of 25 and 64 years should have regular screening and will receive a letter from your GP.
The HPV vaccine (2 doses) is offered routinely to 12-13 year old girls and boys, and also helps protect against some mouth and throat cancers, cancers of the anal and genital areas as well as cervical cancer. Having the vaccine does not mean you should miss screening
When do I need to see a doctor more urgently?
The routine smear tests are for people without any symptoms. The symptoms of cervical cancer are not always obvious, and may not appear until it’s reaching an advanced stage. If you have any of the following symptoms, please do see your GP and do not wait for your screening letter:
• Abnormal vaginal bleeding (during or after sex, between your periods, after your menopause)
• Pain and discomfort during sex
• Unusual or unpleasant discharge
• Persisting pain in your pelvis or lower back
• Change in your bowel or urinary habits, or experiencing incontinence
Links for more information:
There is also a video explaining what will happen at your screening and a link to a leaflet with more information
http://www.jostrust.or.uk – A cervical cancer charity for information and support
Dr Yuheng Zhou is a Teddington resident and a Paediatric Consultant at Hillingdon Hospital