Guest blogs · The StN Project

The realities of HPV and cervical cancer

Julia Tugwell who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2013, shares with us vital information surrounding HPV, how it can be contracted and the consequences – which can lead to cervical cancer.  

Let’s start with the basics.  

Over 3,000 women a year are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK and around 800 will die. The treatment is no walk in the park and for survivors many have long term sexual functioning and/or continence issues. Like many other cancers, anxiety and depression are common in survivors. Unlike other cancers, cervical cancer is rather a young woman’s disease, with 40 being the peak age of diagnosis. It is also highly preventable.  

Most cervical cancers are caused by a sexually transmitted virus called HPV. Yes, that means that if you’ve never had sex then you’re a lot less likely to get cervical cancer than if you’ve had many sexual partners. That’s just the way it is; more exposure = a greater risk. But what if your sex life lies somewhere between the two? Condoms are a good idea when having sex but unfortunately, they will not fully protect you from HPV as it is spread skin to skin rather than by sexual fluids. This means that even mutual masturbation can spread the virus. How can you tell if someone has HPV? The short answer is you can’t by looking!  All beginning to sound a bit scary? Don’t panic!  

HPV is so common it is estimated that up to 80% of all sexually active people will have it at some point. Most people who have HPV won’t know they have it, and won’t know where they got it from, and most importantly it will not cause them ANY issues whatsoever. In the UK girls are offered the HPV vaccine between the ages of 11 and 13. Hopefully before they become exposed to the virus by becoming sexually active. HPV related cancers are on the rise in both men and women. This is partly due to the ‘tinder’ effect! Human sexual behaviour has changed in the digital age and we are having more partners than ever before. This increases our risk of contracting HPV. It’s worth noting though that just like falling pregnant, the more sex you have the more risk you are at, but once could be enough! The HPV vaccine covers the most common cancer-causing strains but it does not, yet, cover all the cancer-causing strains of HPV. This means that having the vaccine can reduce your risk and your lovers risk of developing a HPV related cancer, but not remove the risk completely. Even if you have had the vaccine you should attend your cervical screening when invited.  

Too old for the vaccine? Cervical screening is vitally important at detecting cells that have started to become abnormal due to HPV. Found early, they can be removed relatively easily before they become cancerous. Yet 25% of women do not attend their screening when invited. I was one of them.  

I was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2013 and VaIN (precancerous vaginal cells) in 2014. Since then I have had 5 surgeries resulting in losing my womb, cervix and vagina, my ability to have vaginal sex, my continence and at times my sanity! Because of this I am passionate about educating others about HPV and prevention. The very best way to prevent cervical cancer is to have the HPV vaccine and to attend your screening when invited. 

So ladies, please make that call and book your cervical screening appointment. 

A huge thank you to both Julia and The Eve Appeal (@eveappeal) for providing us with this very important blog post as part of #CervicalCancerPreventionWeek 

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