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Behind The Screen: The Science Behind Cervical Cancer

Updated: Jun 21, 2023


 
Grace Pountney, Editor-in-Chief at Grace Writes

Written & Edited by: Grace Pountney (Editor-in-Chief)

 
Step into science with Science Snapshot, a Bio Brigade blog. Find out about interesting science, health, and diseases. We spotlight individual stories, increase awareness of rare diseases, and answer your Science Suspicions!
 

Why Should I Attend a Cervical Screening?


There are lots of things we try to do to stay healthy and to help prevent disease.


Some of these activities include: regular exercise and eating a balanced diet, brushing our teeth twice daily, and washing regularly.


For women and other people with a cervix (this may include trans men, non-binary people, and intersex people) between the ages of 25 and 64, it is important to book and attend cervical screening appointments to help prevent cervical cancer.


 

What is the cervix?


The cervix is part of the female reproductive system and joins the womb to the vagina.

It plays many important roles including:

  1. Allowing blood to flow out of the vagina during periods

  2. Producing mucus that protects against infection

  3. Closing during pregnancy to keep the baby inside the womb until it is ready to be born, protecting against premature birth and miscarriage


 

Why does HPV increase the risk of cervical cancer?


More than 95% of cervical cancers are caused by high-risk types of human papillomavirus (predominantly HPV16 and HPV18).

HPV is a group of more than 200 related viruses, that are transmitted via sexual contact (this can be via penetrative (i.e. vaginal or anal), oral, or skin-to-skin contact of genital areas).


HPV can cause a variety of cancers, not just cervical.

Most women and men are likely to be infected by HPV at some point in their lives, but the immune systems of more than 90% of the infected populations eventually clear the infection on their own.


However, if the HPV infection is not cleared, the virus can hijack body cells and cause them to divide uncontrollably. If these cells are not recognised and controlled by the immune system they can form precancers. If not treated, precancers can develop into cancer.


 

How does a cervical screening work?


During a cervical screening test, a nurse or doctor takes a swab of cells from the cervix.


Since 95% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV, in the UK, samples are tested first for HPV, and then, if HPV is found, a cytological test is carried out to check for abnormal cell changes.

If a sample is HPV positive but does not have abnormal cells, the individual is invited for another cervical screening appointment in around 1 year, to check if the HPV infection has cleared up on its own or has caused abnormal cell changes.


If a sample is HPV positive and does have abnormal cells, the individual is invited for a colposcopy, to check the cervix in more detail.


Hence, cervical screening is important to identify pre-cancerous cells early so treatment can be provided to prevent cervical cancer.
 


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How do I know when to book my first appointment?

In the UK, up to around 6 months before your 25th birthday, you will receive a letter inviting you to your first cervical screening. You can then contact your GP surgery to book.



 

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