When we don’t understand a lot about a specific health topic, it’s easy to be complacent about it – until it affects us directly. Which is why getting involved in Cervical Health Awareness Month, in January 2022, is important for not only the wellbeing of ourselves, but our mums, daughters, sisters, partners, friends and loved ones.
By being aware of the signs and symptoms to look out for, as well as ways in which we can minimise our risk of Cervical cancer, we have the opportunity to tackle the issue head on.
So let’s start the year off right, by taking time out to understand more about our own cervical health, and the action we can take to reduce the number of people diagnosed with Cervical cancer each year.
What is cervical health?
Cervical health relates to the cervix – the lowermost part of the uterus that forms the opening of the womb to the vagina. More specifically when we talk about cervical health, it’s about prevention and detection of cervical cancer, of which more than 13,000 people are diagnosed with each year in the US alone. In the UK, it’s around 3,000 people – or 9 a day.
Cervical cancer is caused by uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix, which is mainly attributed to HPV (Human Papillomavirus) – a common virus that 8 in 10 people will get in their lifetime, and often they don’t even know they have it. While it usually goes away without causing too many issues, there are 14 high-risk types of HPV, of which cause 99.7% of Cervical cancers.
HPV occurs from skin-to-skin genital contact and while most people won’t even know they have it, for a small number, their immune system won’t be able to get rid of it. The HPV causes a persistent infection, and this then results in changes in the cells of the cervix.
High-risk HPV is also related to a number of other cancers – vaginal, vulval, penile, anal and some head and neck cancers.
Unfortunately we don’t yet know why some people are unable to get rid of the virus, which is why great awareness of it is crucial for our health.
What happens during Cervical Health Awareness Month?
Worldwide, Cervical cancer sits at number four of all cancers, with a woman dying every two minutes. So to try and raise greater awareness of Cervical Health, the US Congress has designated January as Cervical Health Awareness Month.
The focus of Cervical Health Awareness Month is about encouraging more people to take care of their cervical health and how it can relate to maintaining their overall physical health (as with most cancers). It also helps to raise awareness of HPV, including vaccines and treatments for the virus, and the importance of regular cervical screenings (Pap smears).
In the UK, Cervical Cancer Prevention Week will take place from the 17th to the 23rd of January. And while smear tests are still one of the best ways to detect abnormal cells in the cervix, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust notes that the discussions around Cervical health and cancer need to go further than that.
It is about sharing stories, information and tips that go further than a Pap smear to help reduce fear and confusion and provide support and advice.
And getting a head start on January’s awareness campaign were the WHO Member States who have adopted The Global Strategy to Accelerate the Elimination of Cervical Cancer. The goals and targets set by the strategy outline that by the year 2030, all countries worldwide can achieve 90% HPV vaccination coverage, 70% screening coverage and 90% access to treatment for cervical pre-cancer and cancer, including access to palliative care.
What preventative action can we all take?
There are two main ways we can reduce our risk of getting Cervical cancer. Since the introduction of the Pap smear over 50 years ago, the rate of death has greatly decreased – which is why it remains one of the greatest defense mechanisms against the progress of cancerous cells. It’s important to have regular tests when your doctor advises and always follow up if there are any abnormal results.
Secondly, there is the HPV vaccine, which has been typically rolled out for teenagers in order to protect them before they become sexually active, and at most risk of catching HPV. If you are over 25 (and didn’t have it while at school) it is also available to purchase from your general practitioner, depending on your age and other factors.
And we can all play our part by encouraging those around us to talk about cervical screening and why it is so crucial. Being open about such a serious topic will help others to feel more comfortable with the subject – and may even remind someone to head along for their smear if it is overdue!
So jump on board Cervical Health Awareness Month, and let’s move towards a future of reducing the number of people diagnosed with Cervical cancer every year.