Cervical cancer affects many lives. In fact, it is the fourth most common cancer globally – but it is preventable. From prevention methods to symptoms, treatment and more, we've covered some of the main questions you might have about it.
What is cervical cancer? And what’s it got to do with HPV?
Cervical cancer occurs when cells in the lining of the cervix (the entrance to the uterus from the vagina) change in a malignant (i.e. harmful) way.
The primary cause of cervical cancer is human papillomavirus (HPV). There are more than 100 types of HPV. HPV is mainly transmitted through unprotected sexual contact, including skin-to-skin genital contact. It is very common, and most sexually active people will get some type of HPV in their life, regardless of gender or sexuality.
HPV has no symptoms, so you may not know if you have it, and there is currently no treatment for it. It is generally not something to worry about, as most HPV infections can be cleared up by the body’s own immune system.
HPV can be divided into low-risk and high-risk types. Low-risk HPV can cause genital warts. High-risk HPV is associated with precancerous cervical lesions, cervical cancer and cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina, penis, and oropharynx (the part of the throat directly behind the mouth).
How do I prevent myself from getting cervical cancer?
The main tools in the fight against cervical cancer are vaccination and screening.
IPPF recommends that all young people aged 9-14 years – regardless of their sex – receive the HPV vaccination, as anyone can carry/transmit HPV.
Regular cervical screening for adults is also highly recommended. Depending on where you live, you may be invited to these. If not, contact your local healthcare provider to set up an appointment.
In addition, increased condom use can also help lessen the risk of HPV transmission – as well as the transmission of other STIs and HIV.
How does a cervical screening work? Does it hurt?
The process usually involves you lying on your back, with your knees bent and spread apart. A healthcare professional uses a tool called a speculum, which is inserted into the vagina to open it up, usually with the aid of some lubricant. If you receive HPV-testing or cytology, a small brush is then used to collect samples from the cervix that will be further examined. If you receive visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA), a healthcare professional will apply acetic acid to your cervix and inspect the change. The whole process should only take a few minutes.
Some people might experience some discomfort during a cervical screening, but it shouldn’t hurt. If you’re nervous, let your healthcare professional know – they might be able to use a smaller speculum or more lubricant. You can also perhaps try some breathing exercises to help you relax.
It is possible to experience some light spotted bleeding after your screening. If it is heavy or painful, you should seek medical care.
Based on the screening option you choose, you should receive the results of your screening from your healthcare provider on the same day or after a few days. If they detect anything of concern, they will recommend you for further investigation.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
The main symptom of cervical cancer is unusual vaginal bleeding – which can mean bleeding during/after sex, bleeding in between periods, or bleeding after the menopause. This bleeding can be happening for other reasons too, so it’s best to seek medical help to determine exactly what is causing it.
Other symptoms may include (but are not limited to) pain and discomfort during sex, unusual vaginal discharge, pain in your lower back or pelvis, constipation, using the toilet more frequently, blood in your urine, or losing control of your bowels/bladder.
It’s important to note that not everyone with cervical cancer will experience noticeable symptoms, which is why it is important to attend regular screening – even if you feel healthy.
How is cervical cancer treated?
Precancerous cervical lesions are curable. After diagnosis, you might – with your consent – receive treatment for these precancerous lesions. If your results show cancerous lesions, you will receive further investigation, such as X-rays, and relevant treatments, which may be surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these.
Where the cancer is not treatable, it may be possible to undergo palliative care, which means improving your quality of life and relieving symptoms, such as pain and vaginal bleeding.
A healthcare provider will discuss these options in detail with you if needed.
Can I get cervical cancer if I’ve had a hysterectomy?
No, if you have had your cervix removed as part of a total hysterectomy, then you are not at risk of cervical cancer.
I’m a trans man – can I still get cervical cancer?
If you have a cervix, yes. If you have had your cervix removed, then you are not at risk of cervical cancer.
I’m HIV positive, what does this mean for me?
For people with weakened immune systems, such as those with poorly-managed HIV, the risks are far greater. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer among people with cervixes who are also living with HIV. Therefore, it is vital that people living with HIV are vaccinated against HPV if eligible, and attend regular screenings throughout their lifetime.
How worried should I be about getting cervical cancer?
Any symptoms described above that you experience are normally not something to be worried about. However, it’s important that you take a proactive role in keeping yourself healthy. This means getting the HPV vaccine if you are eligible and it’s available, and attending your regular screenings throughout your adult life. This is the best way to ensure you remain free of cervical cancer.
Image courtesy of Jessica Dance, who knitted a uterus exclusively for IPPF