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Small changes can signal serious illness

Women are used to aches, pains, twinges and the monthly hassle of having a period.

Often, they assume these things to be "part of being a woman".

Where unusual symptoms are concerned, however, that attitude can be risky.

Sharon Watt (pictured), 32, a sales executive from Edinburgh, knows only too well how important it is not to ignore abnormal symptoms. Five years ago, aged 27, she started experiencing pain and irregular bleeding, and went to see her GP.

She was immediately referred to a gynaecologist who carried out further tests before telling Sharon that she had cervical cancer. She had seen a poster highlighting cervical cancer symptoms not long before, but it still came as a "massive shock".

Some women with cervical cancer need to have a hysterectomy. Fortunately, Sharon happened to fit the narrow qualifying criteria for another, newer treatment, which involved taking out part of her cervix, preserving her fertility. The surgery was very successful and she was given the all-clear.

Sharon's strain of cervical cancer probably wouldn't have been detected by a smear test, which made acting on her symptoms all the more important. She urges women of all ages not to ignore unusual signs, even if they have had a smear recently. It's important to remember that symptoms can be linked to many other conditions that are not cancer-related, but it is crucial to get checked. "Be aware of your body," she says, "and if something changes in any way, go to the doctor and get it checked out."

Next week marks cervical cancer awareness week and this year, Jo's Trust cervical cancer charity wants women to learn the possible symptoms of cancer, which include bleeding between periods; post menopausal bleeding; pain during or after sex; and unusual discharge.

"Studies show that of those women diagnosed with cervical cancer who had symptoms, about 70% weren't aware that the symptoms were related to the cancer," says Robert Music, director of Jo's Trust. "If something is not normal, women should go to the doctor straight away."

Having regular smear tests is equally important. Some 99.7% of cervical cancers are caused by a strain of HPV virus. There are more than 100 strains of HPV and many are unconnected to cancer. The HPV vaccine, which is offered to all girls in S2 when they are aged 12 or 13, protects against two strains which cause 70% of cervical cancers.

Around 80% of us will have HPV at some point in our lives and for most, the body's immune system will eradicate it without us even realising we have it. In those cases where it doesn't go away, however, it can cause abnormal, pre-cancerous cells to develop, which is why smear tests are so important. One in four women in Scotland, however, are failing to take up their smears, rising to one in three in the 25-29 age group, while take-up among the 55-59 age group has dropped from 82% in 2001-2, to 74.7% last year.

Sharon is "amazed" when she meets people who admit they haven't been for their smear test. "Go and get checked," she says. "Everyone thinks it won't happen to them – until it does."


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