This week is Cervical Cancer Prevention Week. It is the fourth most common cancer in women and the current peak is in women 25-40 years of age. However, if found and treated early is also one of the most treatable forms of cancer. With 99% of cases linked to human papillomaviruses (HPV), it is also a disease that can be prevented through the HPV vaccines as well as cervical screening and treatment. IF DONE EARLY ENOUGH.
The challenge is, in most cases, HPV has no symptoms, so it’s almost impossible to know you have it unless you take a cervical screening test AKA your smear test. Smear tests save over 5,000 lives in the UK each year, with the early detection of abnormal cervical cells and yet almost 1 in 4 women avoid going for their smear test because of embarrassment.
I thought that sharing my own story of HPV detection and treatment would help inspire more women to get their smear test and any follow-up treatment needed to prevent Cervical Cancer.
A friend of a friend
I was 25 years old and had recently moved to London from the US. I had a partner who I’d been with for 3 years and I was in the best health of my life. A smear test was the last thing on my mind. I thought it was something for older women.
This was 2009. The year Jade Goody made headlines not for her TV antics, but for her sad and premature death from Cervical Cancer at the age of 29. It was shocking to see someone so young die of this disease and it caused a lot of conversations. Suddenly all of my friends seemed to be talking about HPV and abnormal screenings. It went from an STD I’d never heard of, to a headline-grabbing condition. But the talking helped as suddenly stories started coming out about the condition, how common it was, and how other young women were suffering. One friend even told me about an old classmate who had ignored medical advice for early treatment and now had early-stage cervical cancer. She was 27. I booked an appointment for a smear test right away.
While it wasn’t pleasant, it wasn’t too bad and I had mostly forgotten about it until I got my results. They came back with written notice of CIN 3, followed by a phone call. On that call I was informed that I had extremely abnormal cells and that left untreated it was highly likely I would develop cervical cancer. As you can imagine, this was a huge shock and I was terrified. Luckily the nurse who called me immediately reassured me that it was treatable and I was booked in for a consultation on treatment options right away.
Even with a plan in place, I still remember walking for hours around London processing the news.
The first step was to get a Colposcopy - NHS (www.nhs.uk) which is a more in-depth examination and in my case a further biopsy. This was to confirm what level of treatment I would need. The results were not great and it was recommended that I have my abnormal cells removed using a type of surgery called a Large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ). I opted to have this under local anesthetic and as an outpatient procedure. In hindsight, a general anesthetic might have been a better option. While they do make everything numb, it was still extremely painful and uncomfortable. As a young woman, there was also something extremely intimidating about having three doctors and nurses all there cutting into my most intimate areas. However, they were all women, which made me feel a lot better.
When it was over I was extremely sore for the next few days. As someone who has now had three children, I wonder why they don’t recommend the heavily padded post-pregnancy pads. Sure they are bulky, but they really could have helped with the soreness. However, it didn’t last long and luckily the procedure was 100% successful. While it wasn't a brilliant experience, I would take the discomfort of the short treatment and the very temporary bit of pain over cancer any day!
Over the past 15 years, I’ve had successive abnormality-free smear test results. I also never saw any side effects or complications and had no issues conceiving or giving birth to my 3 healthy children. But the fear from that first abnormal result means I still never miss an appointment. It helped me to appreciate just how valuable early detection and treatment can be. With so many cancers we don’t yet have early screening for, this is one we should not miss.
I know that the HPV vaccine is a huge help in preventing cervical cancer. But if you didn’t get the vaccine, there is still a risk. Please don’t be embarrassed or nervous, get a smear test.
And if you are one of the many women who suffer from anxiety around smear tests because of past trauma, there is help available. You do not have to miss out on this potentially life-saving procedure. For example, check out the amazing My Body Back Project.
Through vaccines, screenings, and treatments, we have the power to eradicate Cervical Cancer.
What you can do - GET A SMEAR TEST!
Do not ignore any letters recommending you book a cervical screening. Book your smear test right away. If you have childcare issues, check with your surgery, some let you bring young children along. My eight-year-old recently waited in the hallway when I had my latest screening.
If you are not registered with a doctor's surgery or have not had a letter, you can still sign up and call to book a test or book one online. Especially if you have never had one. All women over the age of 25 should get a smear test.
Make sure you show up to your appointment and any follow-up treatment appointments. Any abnormal cells will not go away on their own!
Cervical Cancer Symptoms to watch out for
Vaginal bleeding after intercourse
Bleeding between periods
Bleeding after menopause
Bloodstained vaginal discharge
Abnormal vaginal discharge with a foul odor
Pelvic pain during intercourse
Lower abdominal pain
If you want more information about Cervical screenings, HPV, HPV treatments, and Cervical Cancer we suggest the following resources: