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Even though cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women aged 35 and under, you are still at risk at 50+. It's easy to ignore symptoms - and an alarming number of women in the UK don't attend regular cervical screening. Here are 10 things you should know about cervical cancer over 50 and why it's important to get yourself checked regularly.
Every year in the UK, over 3,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and 300,000 with cervical abnormalities. Over a third of cervical cancer diagnoses in England are in women over 50.
The most effective method of preventing cervical cancer is through regular cervical screening (smear tests), which allow detection of any early changes of the cervix. Cervical cancer is largely preventable and, if caught early, survival rates are high.
Over 50 you will be invited for a screening every five years and under 50 it’s every three years. It's worth remembering that an abnormal screening result rarely means cancer.
In 99.7% of cases, cervical cancer is caused by persistent infection with a virus called Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a very common virus transmitted through skin-to-skin contact of the genital area. Around four out of five people (80%) will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives and the body's immune system will usually clear it up.
While HPV infection is most common in women between the ages of 16 and 25, if you are - or have ever been - sexually active at any age you can contract HPV.
"I have always had clear screening results, should I opt out of the screening programme after 50?"
Making a decision about whether to attend cervical screening is always your choice. However, screening offers the best protection against developing cervical cancer so it is advisable to continue attending your screening appointments when you are invited, which will be up to age 64.
If a woman aged 65 or over has had three negative screening results in a row, it is highly unlikely that she will go on to develop the disease. Women aged 65 and over who have never had a test are entitled to one.
"Is cervical screening more painful after the menopause?"
Certainly after menopause the vaginal walls and entrance can become smaller. Women may also make less natural lubrication and this can make the insertion of the speculum more uncomfortable. Oestrogen levels in the body also fall, which means the cells of the cervix do not shed as easily. This can sometimes produce an 'inadequate' cervical screening test result as not enough cells can be collected. If this happens, you may need to come back to repeat the cervical screening test. There are, however, ways to make screening easier post-menopause.
There are usually no symptoms if you have abnormal cervical cells - and sometimes there are no symptoms with early stage cervical cancer. However, there are some recognised symptoms associated with cervical cancer. These include:
If you are experiencing any or all of these symptoms or are concerned about any new symptom, you should make an appointment to see your GP as soon as possible. Remember, these symptoms can be associated with many other conditions that are not cancer-related.
Each year around five million women in the UK are called for cervical screening yet one in four women do not attend. Cervical screening saves 5,000 lives a year in the UK and is free of charge.
Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust raises awareness about how cervical cancer can be prevented and campaigns for the best care and treatment for those affected. It is the only UK charity dedicated to women and their families affected by cervical cancer and cervical abnormalities. For more information about screening, including helpful tips, please visit their website. They offer a range of information and support, both online and face-to-face, 24 hours a day.
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