Cervical Cancer Prevention Week: Here are the common misconceptions around cervical cancer and HPV

Thousands of cervical cancer cases are prevented each year thanks to smear tests - so why are so many women still skipping them?

Wednesday, 22nd January 2020, 5:00 pm
Women are encouraged to attend cervical screening. Photo by PA

There’s still a lot of confusion around cervical cancer and HPV (a key risk factor for the disease).

As part of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, Imogen Pinnell, health information manager at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, talks through some of the main myths around the disease.

1. Only people with a lot of sexual partners get HPV

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HPV is extremely common, as 80 per cent of men and women will have some type of HPV at some point in their lives and because it’s so widespread, anyone who’s been sexually active could get it. This includes non-penetrative sex, straight sex and gay sex, and using condoms doesn’t provide absolute protection as the virus can be spread via touching too.

2. You’d always know if you have HPV

There are no symptoms of having HPV and it often doesn’t cause any problems - it just lives in our body for a bit and gets cleared by our immune system. It’s only if you go on to develop a condition linked to HPV, like genital warts or cancer, you’d really know.

3. So having genital warts means you’re high-risk for cervical cancer

HPV is split into two categories - low-risk types and high-risk types - and only a few of these can cause cancer. If you’ve had genital warts, which is caused by low-risk types, that doesn’t mean you’d then go on to develop cancer or be at higher risk of that happening.

That said, it is possible to get multiple strains of HPV, so having genital warts doesn’t mean you won’t ever catch a high-risk HPV too.

4. People with high-risk HPV could definitely get cancer

Samples now screened for high-risk HPV before being checked for cell changes. If cell changes are detected, women may be invited for further tests and treatment as required. If high-risk HPV is detected but not any cell changes, they’ll be invited back for another test in 12 months’ time.

In most cases, your body will get rid of the HPV within two years. Even with high-risk types of HPV, it doesn’t mean you will get cancer because most of us will clear it, as our immune system will fight the infection off.

5. Smear tests are designed to diagnose cervical cancer

Smear tests are a preventative test that aims to identify abnormal cell changes before cancer develops, rather than being there to diagnose cancer. The disease results in almost 900 deaths a year, which would be much higher without smear tests, which prevent around 75 per cent of cervical cancers from developing.

6. Cervical cancer only really affects older women

Although rare, cervical cancer is still one of the most common cancers in women under 30. See your GP if you notice any unusual changes or symptoms, such as bleeding between periods or after sex, pain, and unusual lumps, bumps or swelling in your abdomen, vulva or vagina. Bleeding after menopause should always be checked out quickly.

Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is running its #SmearForSmear campaign as part of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, which runs from January 20 to 26.

Since last year, a new method of testing in cervical screening means many more women will be told they have HPV.

Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is concerned that gaps in understanding could mean that what might be considered a simple HPV diagnosis could actually have a damaging effect on the lives of women. So it is running its #SmearForSmear campaign during Cervical Cancer Prevention Week to smear the myths and stigma about HPV and get the facts out.

In most cases HPV goes away by itself, without doing the body any harm. Sometimes it causes cells to change which, if not treated, could develop into cervical cancer.

Testing for HPV is a more accurate test than cytology and is estimated to prevent almost 500 extra cervical cancers every year.