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It’s estimated that 950 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer across Australia this year and while the disease is more common in women over 30, it can occur at any age.
The good news is that the five-year survival rate for cervical cancer is high at 74% and since the introduction of the National Cervical Screening Program in 1991, as well as in-school immunisations, rates of the cancer have decreased drastically.
However, it’s important to remain aware of any signs or symptoms of the disease, as early detection is key when it comes to effective treatment.
There are two main types of cervical cancer and the most common (accounting for 70% of all cervical cancers according to the Cancer Council) is squamous cell carcinoma. Much as it sounds, this type starts in the squamous cells that line the outer surface of the cervix.
Less common and harder to diagnose are adenocarcinomas, which develop from the glandular cells usually located higher up in the cervix.
Cervical cancer cells can spread to tissues around the cervix and as with most cancers, can spread further throughout the body to the lymph nodes, lungs and liver, which is why it’s so important to catch the cancer as early as possible.
The Cancer Council explains that signs of cervical cancer are rare, but when symptoms do occur they may include:
Even less commonly again, the signs and symptoms of advanced cervical cancer include:
These symptoms can be due to a host of other health conditions so it’s recommended that you see your GP as soon as you notice any of them to rule out cervical cancer.
When it comes to cervical cancer, there are risk factors. These include:
Routine cervical screening is your best protection against cervical cancer. The newer tests (which you can access through your GP or local women’s health centre) offer even higher detection rates than the ‘Pap test’ or ‘Pap smears’ of the past as they detect the human papillomavirus (known as HPV), rather than simply looking for cell changes in the cervix.
Why is this important? Although many of us will contract the HPV at some point in our lives (and often without us even knowing it), the problem arises if your body doesn’t clear the HPV infection, as this can then cause changes to cells in your cervix and (in rare cases) develop into cervical cancer.
The National Cervical Screening Program recommends that women aged 25–74 have a cervical screening test two years after their last Pap test, and from then every five years.
Whether you identify as straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex, the Cancer Council recommends that if you have a cervix you should have regular cervical screening tests - HPV can be spread through any kind of sexual activity, not just intercourse.
For eligible patients, there’s the option of self-collection tests to detect for HPV; for more information, visit the Government’s self-collection page.
While cervical cancer carries few – if any – symptoms, early detection is easy, and treatment highly successful. So if you’ve been putting off that appointment, it’s time to call your GP and book one in.
While you’re booking in for your cervical cancer check, find out what other checks or examinations you might be due for.