It’s a terrifying word that strikes fear into most people’s hearts, when even the smallest possibility rears its ugly head. I see it frequently in my work, the terror when healthcare workers mention the word, the relief when we can rule it out, and watching the families’ faces fall when we have to confirm the worst.
Cancer accounted for just under 25% of deaths in women in the UK in 2015. This means if you’re a woman, and have three best friends, one of you will die of cancer. (Hopefully not for a long time, the risk of cancer increases with age, so typically affects the old more than the young). Cancer is caused by errors in cell creation. All cells in the body age and are replaced (at different times depending on the type of cell), and can only be created by other cells. Cells want to make identical copies of themselves but sometimes they make a bad copy, like a smudged photocopy. Most of the time the body finds and fixes these bad copies, but sometimes they don’t, and if the bad copy makes identical copies of itself… then you have cancer. And just like a worn-out photocopier makes more bad copies, so too do older people. But the reassuring news is that more people are surviving cancer than ever before.
Cancer has become a chronic illness. And this has changed within our lifetimes. In the UK, cancer survival has doubled in 40 years, from 24% survival, to 50%. Part of this can be attributed to better treatments, but part can also be attributed to catching cancer early, with education and screening programmes.
The cervical cancer screening programme is especially interesting as it aims to spot dangerous changes before they turn into cancer. To return to the photocopier analogy, this is like when you have a bad copy and stop it before it can make more bad copies. This means if a cervical smear shows up these pre-cancerous cells, they can be removed, you will not have cancer or require chemotherapy (although you will have more checkups, just to keep an eye on you).
However, a cervical smear can show up cancer already there. As with other cancers, the quicker it’s spotted, the better the chances of survival are. If someone is diagnosed with Stage 1 cervical cancer, they have a 95% chance they will survive the next 5 years (and beyond). Common symptoms are: deep pain during sex, abnormal vaginal bleeding, abnormal vaginal discharge, vaginal bleeding after sex. NHS Choices and Cancer Research UK have excellent advice if you’re worried.
Cervical cancer is particularly scary because it does affect young people in the prime of their life, and can tragically cause the death of otherwise healthy young adults. However the cervical smear programme (and the HPV vaccine) is having a massive impact on reducing those numbers. Attending smears regularly is such a small use of your time, but can have such a huge benefit and can ‘HELP BEAT CANCER SOONER’, as Cancer Research UK say.
In some parts of England you will be able to use the myGP app to book your appointment on your smartphone, but you may just get a text or letter reminding you. When you book an appointment, just remember it can’t be during your period or 5 days either side!
By Fi Ozin