5 ways to reduce your risk of cervical cancer

20 February 2019 | Professor Karen Canfell

Cervical cancer is a serious concern for women across Australia. In fact, every day, about 3 Australian women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer. The good news is that cervical cancer is one of the most preventable and treatable forms of cancer.

Due to the success of our HPV vaccination program and changes to the National Cervical Screening Program, Australia is on track to be the first country in the world to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health problem. If Australian vaccination and screening coverage are maintained at their current rates, we are set to reach this target by 2035[1].

It’s not just here on local shores where elimination is possible. Recent Cancer Council NSW research has found that if we achieve high global coverage with both HPV vaccination and cervical screening from 2020, we could prevent an incredible 13 million cases of cervical cancer over the next 50 years, and could achieve worldwide elimination of cervical cancer in most countries by the end of the century.

This is the first time that such predictions have been made at a global scale. While these findings are encouraging, we all have a part to play in ensuring that cervical cancer rates continue to decline.

Here are five ways you can reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer:

HPV Vaccination

The current HPV vaccine protects against 90% of cervical cancers, as well as other HPV-related cancers. As part of the National HPV Vaccination Program, the vaccine is free for girls and boys aged up to 19 years, and recommended to be delivered at ages 12 and 13. Males and females aged 20 or older may still benefit from the HPV vaccine and can ask their GP for more information, or check out the website here.

However even if you’ve been vaccinated, you will still need regular screening tests as the HPV vaccine does not provide protection against all types of HPV.

HPV-Based Screening

In its early stages, cervical cancer usually has no symptoms. The only way to know if there are abnormal cells in the cervix, which may develop into cervical cancer, is to have a cervical screening test. HPV testing looks for the presence of the virus that causes cervical cancer, which means doctors can find women who could be at risk of developing cervical cancer in the future.

All women aged 25-74 are eligible to take part in the National Cervical Screening Program and should have an HPV screening test every five years, even if they have been vaccinated for HPV. More information can be found here.

Recognising Symptoms

While a screening test is the most reliable identifier of cervical cancer, it can pay to be aware of any potential symptoms you may be experiencing (regardless of your age), including:

  • vaginal bleeding between periods, after menopause or during or after sexual intercourse
  • pain during sexual intercourse
  • unusual vaginal discharge
  • heavier periods or periods that last longer than usual

Talk With Your GP

If you are worried about symptoms you are experiencing, see your GP to discuss options for further investigation, regardless of your age. If you might be at higher risk of developing cervical cancer because of increased exposure to risk factors or specific personal history, again it’s best to talk to your GP.

Women in Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales aged 25-38 years, can also contribute to research towards cervical cancer elimination by joining Compass – Australia’s largest clinical trial finding the most effective strategies for optimising cervical screening in HPV vaccinated women. Interested women are encouraged to visit the Compass Trial website or to call the Compass hotline on 1800 611 635 to find their nearest participating GP and make an appointment to sign up.

Healthy Lifestyle

You can reduce your risk for a number of cancers by leading a healthier lifestyle. For example, smoking increases the risk of developing cervical cancer in women with HPV. The lifestyle factors that can help protect against several other cancers include: enjoying a healthy diet, being physically active every day, limiting alcohol and maintaining a healthy body weight.

By staying on top of these five tips, you can substantially reduce your chances of developing cervical cancer. Elimination of cervical cancer as a public health problem, on a global scale, is well within our sights. Opportunities to make this kind of headway against cancer don’t come along very often, so we must all play our part in making cervical cancer elimination a reality.

[1] https://www.cancer.org.au/news/media-releases/australia-set-to-eliminate-cervical-cancer-by-2035.html