Adeola Olaitan is Chair of the North London Gynaecological Tumour Board. She works at the Department of Gynaecological Oncology at University College Hospital and privately at The Portland Hospital. Here she lists 7 things you should know about Cervical Cancer.
Q. What is cervical cancer? A. The cervix is a ring of muscle at the top of the vagina, it is the entrance to the womb. During childbirth the cervix expands until it is wide enough to let the baby out. The surface of the cervix facing into the vagina is covered with a type of skin which can become cancerous.
Q. What are the symptoms of cervical cancer? A. It is unusual for women to experience the symptoms of cervical cancer these days as the vast majority of cases are diagnosed during cervical screening. When symptoms are observed, they are abnormal vaginal bleeding (between periods) and – more rarely – discomfort during intercourse.
Q. Are there different types of cervical cancer? A. This is one of the few types of cancer where there are clear early stages which can be diagnosed and treated. The first stage is called CIN 1 and simply means that the cells on the cervix are slightly abnormal. This may have several causes and often clears up after a while. CIN 2 is not cancer, but the cells on the surface of the cervix show a number of cancer-like changes which can be seen under the microscope. The third stage, CIN 3, is close to cancer and is also known as ‘carcinoma in situ’. If left untreated, CIN 3 has a 50% chance of developing into cancer.
Q. Who is at risk of cervical cancer? A. Each year, over 40,000 women are found to have CIN 2 or CIN 3. Almost all of them are successfully treated. However, over 3,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed each year in the UK and 11,000 in the USA. Younger women are more likely to have CIN 3 than older women. The risk is low during the teens but is highest during the ages of 20 to 29, slowly decreasing thereafter.
Q. What is cervical screening? A. To check for CIN, a doctor or nurse will take a smear from the surface of the cervix. A small wooden or plastic spatula is inserted into the vagina and painlessly scraped over the cervix. A number of cell from the cervix stick to the spatula. These are examined under the microscope for any abnormalities. Women found to have CIN2 or CIN 3 can be treated to prevent them getting cervical cancer.
Q. How important is cervical screening? A. All women over the age of 20 should have a cervical screen at least every five years. Cervical screening started in 1964 and the effects have been quite clear. The death rate from this cancer has fallen by two thirds since then. It has been estimated that, over a 10-year period, cervical screening has saved the lives of 8,000 women in the UK.
Q. How effective is the treatment? A. The treatment for CIN 2 or CIN 3 is very effective indeed. Even when someone is diagnosed as having cervical cancer, the treatments are still very good. Overall, three out of every five patients will be cured. For women under 50, nearly four out of every five are cured.