Continuing the series of trainings our Ambassadors are taking up for ‘The small c’, on the 28th of May we received training from Jo’s Trust, on the topic of cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is cause by the HPV virus; specifically, around 13 high-risk types of HPV are responsible for causing cervical cancers, and two out of those (16 and 18) are responsible for 70% of all cervical cancers diagnosed. An HPV infection causes changes to the cells of the cervix, creating abnormalities; it affects the DNA in the cells, meaning any new cells created will also be abnormal. The HPV virus is sexually transmitted; pretty much everyone who has ever had sex is likely to come into contact with at least some strand, at some point in their lives. It is estimated that four out of five (80%) women are infected with genital HPV at some point in their lives without ever knowing it, because HPV is usually cleared (without treatment) by the body’s immune system, with 80% of cells healing within two years. If your immune system doesn’t clear the infection and/or the abnormal cells are not removed or monitored, the DNA of the HPV virus can join with the DNA of the epithelial cells, creating cancer cells. This is why anything that lowers your immune system (such as smoking or having an unhealthy diet) increases your risk. This is also why cervical screening and HPV vaccination are important in helping to spot abnormalities and prevent cancer. Every year in the UK, 300,000 women are told they may have some form of cervical abnormality. 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Sounds scary?
Remember: there are things you can do to take care of yourself
Each year around five million women in the UK are invited for cervical screening (smear test); if you have recievied an invitation, we strongly advise you go for it. It is a screening test to detect abnormalities (pre-cancer) at an early stage in the cells in the cervix; it can be carried out at your GP practice or a family planning/reproductive health clinic, by a practice nurse or GP. Having your cervical screening sample taken should only take a matter of minutes. Before the procedure starts the doctor or nurse should explain what is going to happen and answer any questions or concerns you may have. The test consists of collecting a swab of cells from your cervix and analysing them under a microscope. This is not a test to detect cancer; rather, it can spot any abnormalities in the cells; if any suspicious changes are found, you will be referred for further investigation. There are also currently two HPV vaccines that provide protection against the two high-risk types of HPV (types 16 and 18) that cause 70% of all cervical cancers; vaccines are available free on the NHS for all girls aged 11–17 in Scotland and 12–17 in the rest of the UK . Girls aged 12-13 (or 11-13 in Scotland) are likely to be offered the vaccine at school; but it can also be obtained through your local GP. Research indicates that the HPV vaccine could prevent two thirds of cervical cancers in women under the age of 30 years old by 2025, but only if uptake of the HPV vaccination is at 80% (which so far has happened in the UK due to the NHS programme).
Now, knowing this, we were keen to pass the knowledge around…
So, on the 4th of June, with help from Shadow Women, an organisation ran by our Community Health Ambassador Agram Muse, we organised a community talk with a Somali women’s group, at the King’s Cross Brunswick Neighbourhood Association. In an informal space, over tea and hummus, we spoke about why cervical screening is important, about our experiences with it so far (including: how to make an appointment for it, how to deal with stress before it, how to deal with unhelpful or less than gentle nurses) and about the importance of vaccinating our school-aged daughters against HPV. The session was so well-loved that we returned the next week, this time with a talk on bowel cancer.