Understanding cervical cancer – what every woman needs to know

understanding cervical cancer

*This is a guest post 

Cervical cancer – I’m betting that you’re pretty sure that it could never affect you. It’s not something that happens to you right? I mean, cancer is not something you really want to think about but when you do you think of the “bigger” cancers like lung or pancreatic cancer. That’s what I did – I never considered that I could be affected by cervical cancer.

At 36 years old I had my routine smear test earlier this year and to my shock it began a journey I never thought I would go through. The routine test revealed “abnormal cells” and I had to take a trip to the hospital for further tests. In the months between May and July I went through tests, investigative procedures, and surgery – which revealed that I had, in fact, had cervical cancer. Since May I have learned a lot about cervical cancer and want to share my knowledge with every single woman out there, including you, which is why I’m writing this post. Here’s what you need to know…

Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer forms in the cells that line the cervix. In the early stages it may not have any symptoms, and can be prevented with regular smear tests – which is why you should go for your smear test when you receive the reminder.

99.7% of cases of cervical cancer are caused by persistent high-risk HPV, an extremely common virus that causes changes to the cervical cells. HPV is contracted via skin-to-skin contact of the genital area which means anyone who has been sexually active could’ve contracted the virus. Around 4 out of 5 people will contract HPV at some point in their lifetime. The body’s immune system usually clears up the HPV infection on it’s own and most people are unaware they have contracted the virus.

Abnormal cells

Abnormal cells are caused by persistent infections with HPV. They are not cancerous, but over time (usually years) can develop into cancer. The abnormal cells can return to normal by themselves but the decision to let them is a determination your doctor will make.

The first time you hear about abnormal cells will probably be when you receive your letter after your smear test. It will likely tell you abnormal cells were found during the routine test and you’ll be sent a hospital appointment for further tests. While receiving that letter is terrifying (believe me I know) at this stage it is not something to worry about. Having abnormal cells does not mean you have cancer but further tests will help doctors judge whether or not you need further treatment.

Symptoms

In the early stages you probably won’t have symptoms but if you have any of the following you should consult your GP.

  • Abnormal bleeding: during or after sexual intercourse, or between periods.
  • Post menopausal bleeding: if you are not on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or have stopped it for six weeks or more.
  • Unusual vaginal discharge.
  • Discomfort or pain during sexual intercourse.
  • Lower back pain.

Not all women experience symptoms, which is why it is so important to go for your routine smear tests.

As cervical cancer progresses it can cause other symptoms which include:

  • Increased frequency of urination
  • Blood in the urine
  • Bleeding from the bottom
  • Diarrhoea
  • Incontinence
  • Swelling of the lower limbs

I had NO symptoms. It was only because I went for my routine smear test that the cervical cancer was found. The smear test saved my life.

Risk factors

Okay so it’s not definitely going to happen to you but it really can happen to any woman. Cervical cancer grows silently and without the smear test you could have no idea it is growing inside you – like me.

While it can happen to any woman there are certain factors that increase your chances of developing cancer.

  • Being sexually active from a younger age
  • Having children at a younger age
  • Giving birth to many children
  • Having a higher number of sexual partners
  • Long term use of the contraceptive pill (more than 10 years) can slightly increase the risk of developing cervical cancer.

I first gave birth when I was 23 and I have two children, I started taking the contraceptive pill at 15 and stopped taking it when I was about 28. I had never considered myself “at risk” of developing cervical cancer and it is only thanks to the smear test that I am here today to be able to write about it

The process

It’s likely the first time you’ll be alerted to anything is when you receive your letter after your smear test informing you they have found abnormal cells. Like I said, this does not mean you have cancer, but you will be sent to the hospital for further investigation.

At your hospital appointment you’ll undergo what is called a Colposcopy, this is where a doctor will use a microscope to look at your cervix. Apart from some die to colour the abnormal cells nothing goes inside you at this point. The doctor will use the Colposcopy to decide whether to do anything with your abnormal cells. Sometimes they decide to leave them alone to heal, sometimes they’ll perform a LLETZ.

A LLETZ procedure is where the doctor uses a special tool to cut away part of your cervix. At my appointment, straight after doing the Colposcopy, the doctor decided to do the LLETZ while I was there. A patch was placed on my thigh, which was to numb me, and they waited a little time for it to start working. They knew it was working when my legs began trembling uncontrollably – a little unnerving but the nurse distracted me. The LLETZ tool is a heated tool and when they are performing the procedure you can feel something – kind of like pressure. It’s uncomfortable but not unbearable.

Once the LLETZ has been performed you’re given time to recover and given a list of restrictions on your lifestyle for the next 6 weeks, after all you’ve just had surgery. The tissue they cut out during the LLETZ is then sent to a laboratory to be tested.

The process may alter slightly depending on your doctor and the decisions they make but this is a general idea.

Being diagnosed with cancer

It may have been a short experience – over in a few short months – but it changed me. I had to go through 2 LLETZ procedures to confirm my cancer had been removed. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, in fact the second LLETZ hurt – a lot – but I tried to act like it was nothing. It wasn’t nothing. It has changed me.

Now if I have bleeding between periods or after intercourse I immediately think the cancer is back. I worry. I think about it. I even dream about it.

It may have been over quickly but the mental implications are real.

Follow up

If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer you will be monitored closely after your procedures. I will be sent for a Colposcopy every six months for a while and if everything remains clear that will reduce to every year. It will be that way until the doctors decide they can put me back on 3 yearly smear tests with my GP.

A cervical cancer diagnosis is a scary thing, but it doesn’t have to be the end. Going for your smear tests regularly increases the chances of any changes being discovered. And that could save your life.

After my experience this year I am urging every single women to go for their smear test. It really could save your life – it did mine.

Understanding cervical cancer - what every woman needs to know

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Author bio: Mum to two boys, 8 and 13, Morgan Prince writes about daily life coping with a teen and tween in the house over at Morgan’s Milieu. Last year she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and as a survivor she is intent on raising awareness and ensuring ALL women go for regular smear tests. Find her over at her blog Morgan Prince and read more about her own cervical cancer journey here.

Headline picture courtesy of Jo’s Trust

59 comments

  1. It’s so important to raise awareness about cervical cancer and having a smear test. I was due my first one when I was pregnant, so booked in afterwards and although I was scared it was absolutely fine. Such an important part of being a women!

  2. I also went through these procedures and it is very frightening. In my case the abnormal cells weren’t the result of cancer but were a sign of an auto immune condition. It really is essential to go to your smear every time!

    • They were very frightening, particularly the second one for me. The waiting is the worst though. Absolutely essential to get the test regularly because it gives the doctors more of a chance of finding something if it’s there. Hope everything is okay with you now Perdita. xxx

  3. So important to keep awareness high about this subject. I know smears are horrible; they really do strip away your dignity. But so does labour – at least a smear is over in two seconds flat! I recently read that the “Jade Goody affect” was waning because people are forgetting that young, healthy women can get cervical cancer.

    • Yes that’s the trouble Tracy, young women don’t think it will happen to them. They don’t have symptoms and so believe that it doesn’t really matter because they wrongly assume that they’d have symptoms if something was wrong. I really hope that this Cervical Cancer Prevention Week makes some sort of difference to attendance numbers.

  4. I can’t say enough how important it is. Everyone thinks it won’t happen to them, but as someone who had an abnormal smear and who has also had a LLETZ, I’ll never know what might have happened if I hadn’t gone for my smear test then. I’m always shocked when I hear that the rates of women being tested have fallen so much – nearly everyone will know someone who has gone through having abnormal cells removed, it’s so important that we talk about it and people understand how common it is.

    • Exactly Katy. The abnormal cells can take up to 10 years to turn into cancer, in my case I guess it was a little quicker than that, but still – it happens to so many women. Since writing about my story I’ve connected with so many women who have had a LLETZ or something similar. Hope everything is okay with you now Katy. xx

  5. Cervical smear tests are so important. I have never missed one and never will. No they are no nice but it can save your life. It’s a absolute must!

    • Very true Cecile. When I was talking to the doctor during one of my procedures he said that just in Nottingham 70% of women don’t attend their smear tests – I was SO shocked. It is vital. I really hope Cervical Cancer Prevention Week raises the issue and brings it to the attention of the women who need it.

  6. This is such an important issue! I’m actually shocked they only test every 3 years ion the UK. We’ve just been living in Germany for six years, and there you get tested every six months.

    • I believe it’s every three years in the UK because if there are changes to your cells it takes them up to 10 years to mutate into cancer. I guess the doctors think that testing every 3 years is how they will catch any cancer in time without it being too much of a nuisance? I’m not sure to be honest, I just know it’s an important test.

  7. Morgan I am so relieved to hear that all is now well with you again. I am also reading this prior to seeing my consultant about what my fate will be following my own midlife cervical cancer nightmare over Christmas. I have always attended my smears yet a routine smear in December has turned my world upside down. It’s been a long four weeks but I hope that whatever course my path takes now although it will be hard there will be light at the end. I have published my own experience today in a bid to raise awareness amongst the midlifers that smears are still important. I admire the honesty in your post and hope that those dragging their heels will take head from your experience. #SmearforSmear

    • Oh goodness Jo I had no idea! I’m heading over to your blog to read your post now. I really do hope everything turns out well for you. I am thinking of you and am happy to talk if you need it – it’s a really worrying time and I totally know how you feel. xxx

  8. SUCH an important topic – glad we bloggers are spreading the word about it. We mums tend to put our own health in the background, while prioritising the rest of the family’s lives, but one 5-minute test could save our life! It’s time we ALL realised just how crucial the smear test is.
    PS: I’m heading for mine next week…
    #coolmumclub

  9. Thank you for sharing your experience, so important that women go for their smear test, it may be embarrassing or uncomfortable but it certainly saves lives as you have so clearly demonstrated! #coolmumclub

  10. What a harrowing experience for you. Of course it has changed you. Also I’m sure it’s shown you how strong you are as well. So pleased everything is now ok. It’s such an important message. Too often us mums get caught up with everything that needs doing for everyone else and neglect ourselves. #coolmumclub

  11. Thanks so much for sharing your experience Morgan. Glad to hear that your treatment has been successful. I was found to have abnormal cells one year and so had a few repeat tests over the course of that year. Everything turned out to be fine but I’m so glad we have that option to be tested and check everything is OK. People should absolutely keep up to date with their smear tests. #coolmumclub

  12. Such an important post. I had abnormal pre-cancerous cells nine years ago. I was so frightened. I went to the hospital and had a Colposcopy to have them removed. Whilst it was most unpleasant, the inevitable alternative would have been far worse. The smear test saved my life. It’s so important to keep on with the awareness. To think girls won’t go to have this done because they’re embarrassed is such a shame. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about to want to save your own life. #CoolMumClub

    • Exactly Jaki. I was so saddened to hear that body image was the reason women aren’t going for this test! I really hope this Cervical Cancer Prevention Week helps to reduce the rates of women skipping the test.

  13. A really great informative post. I’ve always known the importance of smear tests and making sure I’m up to date, but I’ll admit I never actually knew the symptoms of cervical cancer which really is just as important given how infrequent smear tests are. Thanks for sharing your story #coolmumclub

  14. Thanks Abi. To be honest I didn’t know the symptoms of cervical cancer either, it wasn’t until I had the first letter from the hospital that I researched it and found out all this stuff.
    Women definitely need to be made more aware of it all. xx

  15. I had abnormal cells in my early twenties and it was a terrifying experience. Thankfully it was picked up during a routine smear test, and after colposcopy treatment it was banished. I’ve had a good few healthy smears now, and am no longer at a higher risk than anyone else. It is SO important to get your smear test done when it is due. If I hadn’t I might not have been here to post this comment

  16. This is such an important post! I’ve just read and commented on another post of Morgan’s and think she’s such an inspiration xxx #coolmumclub

  17. So glad you’re OK Morgan. I have to admit I was shocked to hear how many women do not go for their smear tests, it’s just something I’ve always done and assumed everyone else did too. I’m glad you did!! #coolmumclub

  18. Ah the gorgeous and wonderful Morgan – I remember reading about her scary experience last year, and as someone who has also been treated for abnormal cells, I couldn’t agree with her more. I wouldn’t miss a smear test like it were a hot date with Tom Hardy. Fabulous #coolmumclub lifesaving advice, well done ladies x

  19. I am so sad to hear what you have been through and what you are still facing with fear and dreams, I think you are so strong and amazing, us women have to deal with so much and you are sitting here sharing your story and reaching out to us, encouraging us to be safe and get tests done! I am glad you are physically doing well xx #coolmumclub

  20. I’m so sorry to read about all you’ve been through but thank you for raising awareness and reminding us all how important a smear test can be. I’ve got mine next month and will be making 100% sure I attend #coolmumclub

  21. Really helpful and informative post, I remember reading Morgan’s post on her blog and being shocked yet amazed at how helpful her story was #coolmumclub

  22. I’m overdue mine after having the girls. It certainly is important that every woman gets checked out. I imagine it could save a life and your children certainly want their mother around. #coolmumclub

  23. It is so important to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms whilst also being reassuring. I posted about smear tests last year and was shocked by the barrage of criticism I received about smears giving worry and leading to unnecessary treatment. Yet I still believe in the importance of smears and would rather undergo treatment than have to say goodbye to my children due to cervical cancer. #coolmumclub

    • I can’t believe someone would criticise you for talking about smear tests! I think the only time you have anything to worry about is if they don’t know what’s going on – if you receive a letter that says something clearly then they know what it is and will treat it, if necessary. There’s certainly not any unnecessary treatment going on! Yep, I’m glad I had the treatment, it was unpleasant but absolutely life-saving.

  24. I’m so pleased you all took the time to read this post there is so much we can do to protect ourselves…remember knowledge is power! x

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