Women have been urged to take their smear tests when invited after a drop during the COVID pandemic.
Cervical cancer kills around 850 women every year in the UK. Almost every case – 3,200 per year – is preventable.
Women between the ages of 25 and 64 are invited for regular cervical screening under the NHS Cervical Screening Program.
The program spots abnormalities within the cervix that could, if undetected and untreated, develop into cervical cancer.
A new report from NHS Digital revealed 70.2 per cent of eligible women in England were “adequately screened” for cervical cancer in the year 2020-21.
This was a drop in coverage of two percentage points compared to the previous year (72.2 percent).
Samantha Dixon, Chief Executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: “A two percent drop in cervical screening coverage is not unexpected given the last year, however it is a worry.
“In some areas coverage is lower than one in two and that should be ringing alarm bells.”
Screening coverage ranged from 45.8 percent in Kensington and Chelsea in London to 78.4 percent in Derbyshire.
Ms Dixon said: “Our health service is under unprecedented strain at the moment and facing a long winter. We cannot afford to let coverage slip further. It will only lead to even more cancers that could have been prevented.”
Some of the findings of the new report include that in 2020/21, 40,000 fewer women were invited for their smear test.
Some 4.59 million people were invited for screening – a one percent decrease on 2019/20, when the figure was 4.63 million.
The number of tests carried out also fell, with 170,000 fewer people seen.
Some 3.03 million individuals were tested, a decrease of 5.3 percent compared to the previous year, when 3.2 million were tested.
Cervical screening coverage was lower in the 25 to 49 age group – it decreased to 68 percent, from 70.2 percent in 2020.
In the 50 to 64 age group, coverage decreased from 76.1 percent in 2020 to 74.7 percent in 2021.
There were also fewer referrals for colposcopy, a procedure to look at the cervix – 176,561 compared to 191,563.
It came as separate figures also showed that HPV vaccine coverage has improved but is “still not up to pre-pandemic levels”.
The jab, give to schoolchildren, protects against some high-risk types of HPV that can lead to genital warts and cancer of the cervix, penis, mouth, throat and anus.
Disruption to schooling during the pandemic was blamed for less HPV jabs in arms, as they are administered at school.
Some 76.7 percent of Year 8 girls in England got their first dose in the year 2020/21 compared with 88 percent in 2018/19. It was an improvement on the 59.2 percent in 2019/20.
The figures from the UK Health Security Agency also show that 71 percent of Year 8 boys got their first dose.
Ms Dixon said: “Coverage is still far lower than it was before the pandemic, meaning many schoolchildren could fall through the gap and miss out on protection from HPV-related cancers.”
Many people have raised concerns that cases of all types of cancer have gone undetected due to the effects of the pandemic.
There are up to 60,000 “missed” cancer cases in England, according to The National Audit Office.
These people would have been expected to start cancer treatment in March 2020 and September 2021 but failed to do so.
Know the signs
1. Abnormal bleeding
The most common and earliest sign of cervical cancer tends to be irregular bleeding which can occur during or after sex, between periods (spotting) or after the menopause.
It happens when the cancer cells grow on the tissue below the cervix.
It’s an especially alarming sign in postmenopausal women who no longer have periods. There’s no age limit to developing cervical cancer.
There are many reasons why women may unusually bleed that are unrelated to cancer. See your GP to rule the disease out.
2. Unusual vaginal discharge
Everyone’s discharge is different, so it’s a case of knowing what is normal for you.
It also changes over the course of your cycle and in response to infection or hormonal changes, for example pregnancy.
If you find your discharge is looking different to normal, for example eif thicker, changing colour or smelling unpleasant,that’s something you need to have checked out.
When cancer lacks oxygen, it can cause an infection which leads to strange smelling discharge.
3. Discomfort or pain during sex
Pain during sex can be a sign of a number of different issues, but one is cervical cancer.
Because the disease often comes with no symptoms, pain during intercourse is one of the key indicators. It can be a sign that the cancer is spreading to surrounding tissues.
4. Pain in the lower back or hips
It could be down to you straining something in the gym, or it could be a warning sign that something’s wrong with your reproductive organs.
Pain in the lower back, pelvis, between the hips or appendix can be a symptom of cervical cancer.
It’s a good idea to see your GP if your pain is affecting your day-to-day life, lasts more than two weeks and there is no obvious cause of it.
5. Unintended weight loss
While effortless weight loss might sound like the answer to many of our prayers, it’s never a good sign if it happens seemingly without cause.
A loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss tend to be signs that the body isn’t working properly – it’s trying to conserve energy.
If you notice that you’re not eating as you normally do, or weight has unintentionally come off, go to your GP.
Weight loss is a key sign of many cancers, as well as fatigue, a fever, or lumps – read more here.