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Cervical Cancer: Medical negligence lawyers set out the key signs and symptoms to be aware of and how we can help eliminate the disease

In the UK, all women are entitled to cervical cancer screening smear test from the age of 25. 

Additionally, there’s now a vaccine available for human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes most cervical cancers. 

As such, the NHS recently pledged to eliminate cervical cancer by 2040.

But how realistic is this goal, and what stands in the way of eliminating cervical cancer in the UK?

What is cervical cancer? 

Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the cervix grow in an uncontrolled way, eventually forming a tumour. It mostly affects women under the age of 45, with the highest number of cases occurring in those aged 30 to 34. 

How many people are affected?

In the UK, less than one in 100 will develop cervical cancer in their lifetime. However, there are still more than 3,000 cases diagnosed each year.

Cervical cancer is the 14th most common cancer in women, according to Cancer Research UK.

Why does it occur? 

The main cause is a virus called high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV). There are more than 200 types of HPV, with 14 types considered high-risk. 

HPV is common. Nearly all people who are sexually active will become infected with HPV at some point. Most HPV infections go away on their own as the immune system controls the infection.

However, when a high-risk HPV infection lasts for years, it can lead to changes in cervical cells, potentially resulting in a pre-cancerous lesion. If the pre-cancerous lesion isn’t removed, it may develop into cervical cancer.

The importance of prevention and screening 

Cervical cancer is highly preventable and curable if caught early. Nearly all cervical cancers could be prevented by HPV vaccination, routine cervical cancer screening, and appropriate follow-up treatment when needed.

Practising safer sex, such as using condoms, can reduce the risk of HPV transmission but doesn’t eliminate it entirely. 

The HPV vaccination is offered to all children aged 12 to 13 in the UK and provides protection against the types of HPV most likely to cause cervical cancer. However, vaccination doesn’t treat pre-existing HPV infections, so regular screening is still essential.

Cervical cancer screening, also known as a smear test, is offered to those aged 25 to 64. 

The goal of screening is to detect and treat pre-cancerous cell changes. Treatment can then prevent cervical cancer from developing. 

The cervical cancer signs and symptoms to be aware of

Early on, cervical cancer usually doesn’t have symptoms, making it hard to detect. Symptoms usually begin after the cancer has spread. However, when symptoms of early-stage cervical cancer do occur, they may include:

  • Unusual bleeding, such as bleeding in between periods or after menopause
  • Pain and/or bleeding after sex
  • Changes in vaginal discharge
  • Pain in the lower back, hips, or lower belly area.

If you have symptoms that could be related to cervical cancer it’s advisable to see your GP who will decide whether to carry out tests or refer you to a specialist.

Treatment options

Treatment depends on various factors such as the size and stage of the cancer, whether it has spread, and the individual's overall health. 

If screening results show that you have abnormal cells or high-risk HPV, you will usually be referred for a closer examination using a microscope. A biopsy may also be taken.

Cervical cancer can often be treated with surgery if you have early-stage cancer. Depending on how big the tumour is and where it is, there are various surgery options which doctors should discuss with patients. 

You may have radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy prior to surgery to make the cancer smaller, or after surgery to stop the cancer returning or to stop the spread to other parts of the body if the cancer is advanced.

What are my legal rights following a cervical cancer misdiagnosis or diagnosis delay?

All medical professionals have a duty of care to make sure your condition is diagnosed quickly and that you’re given the right treatment. If this doesn’t happen, your cancer could go undetected and spread to other parts of the body, making it harder to treat. 

In some cases, fertility can be impacted or sadly, the cancer can become terminal.

A legal claim can not only provide answers but helps secure access to specialist rehabilitation and therapies people may require to try and live with the effects of the condition, or specialist support to try and come to terms with a bereavement. Compensation can also help those who have been left infertile following their treatment, and who want a child, access surrogacy. 

Charity support

We also work closely with expert organisations that can offer further help to you or loved ones. We can introduce you to a staff member at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, one of key charity partners. Its expertise can be invaluable in helping you and your family understand your diagnosis.

A future free from cervical cancer?

The UK is taking steps towards reducing the impact of cervical cancer, and organisations such as Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust are calling for that to happen faster. However, there remains challenges to eliminating cervical cancer in the UK. 

There remains a stigma around HPV and while five million people are invited for cervical screening each year, in recent years only round 70% of eligible women had a smear within the required number of years. 

While acting on symptoms won’t prevent cancer from occurring, early diagnosis means less invasive treatments and better health outcomes. Unfortunately, public awareness is low, with more than one in three not seeking help for potential cervical cancer symptoms. 

Therefore, it’s vital that people are not only aware of the signs of cervical cancer and seek medical advice at the earliest opportunity, but also participate fully in the screening programme.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell’s expertise in supporting people and families affected by cervical cancer at our dedicated cervical cancer claims section.