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Even though cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women aged 35 and under, you are still at risk over 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 the age of 50 and why it's important to get yourself checked regularly.
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Every year in the UK, over 3,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and 220,000 with cervical abnormalities. Whilst diagnoses and deaths from cervical cancer have declined overall since the 1970s by around 75%, missed or postponed screenings continue to lead to unnecessary and preventable cases of cervical cancer.
Over a third of cervical cancer diagnoses in England are in women over 50, and in the UK between 2012-2014, 47% of deaths from cervical cancer were females over 65. Since older females constitute a disproportionately high mortality rate, it's hugely important that women aged 50 plus continue to get checked.
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, and, if any, cancerous or pre cancerous cells. 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. For women aged over 65, only those who haven't been screened since they were 50, or have had recent abnormal tests, are offered screenings.
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. HPV-related cancers can take up to 10-15 years to develop, so even if you have only had one sexual partner, or been monogamous within that time, it's still worth getting checked.
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"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?"
After menopause, one of the side effects is that 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 of cervical cancer if you have abnormal cells - and sometimes there are no symptoms with early stage cervical cancer. However, there are some recognised cervical cancer symptoms, which 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 by their health care provider or the NHS 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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