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Cervical Cancer vs Ovarian Cancer

Cervical Cancer vs Ovarian Cancer

Understanding the differences

The cervix and ovaries, along with five other organs, make up the female reproductive system.

The two can often be confused with each other, but knowing the difference between the cervix and the ovaries can help you understand signs and symptoms of cancer to look out for and decide when to speak to your doctor if you’re worried about any unusual changes.

Illustration demonstrating the placement of the ovaries and the cervix.

Where is the cervix?

The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the womb. It sits at the bottom part of the abdomen, just next to the bladder.

What causes cervical cancer?

Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV (human papilloma virus). The virus can cause cell changes in the cervix which, if left untreated, can develop into cervical cancer.

HPV is a very common virus
which is spread through any type of sexual activity, and around 4 in 5 people will have HPV at some point in their lives. In most cases, our immune system will clear an HPV infection by itself, but in a small number of cases the infection doesn’t clear and can cause cell changes that might develop into cancer.

How can cervical cancer be prevented?

Cervical screening tests for HPV are carried out by taking a small sample of cells from the cervix and checking for HPV. If the virus is found, the sample will be tested for any cell changes, meaning that these cells can be treated before they have the chance to develop into cancer.

In 2008, the NHS introduced a HPV vaccine programme for girls aged 12 and 13, which was expanded in 2019 to include both girls and boys of this age group. The HPV vaccine is also recommended for some people who are at a higher risk of HPV. The vaccine protects against high-risk HPV which cause the majority of cervical cancers. It has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer.

It is important that those who have had the vaccine continue to attend their screening when invited, as there is still a risk of developing cervical cancer.

Common signs and symptoms of cervical cancer

A common sign of cervical cancer is unusual bleeding, including bleeding between periods, during or after sex or after menopause.

Other symptoms include pain during sex, pain in the pelvis, changes to vaginal discharge and lower back or tummy pain. These symptoms can have many causes, but it is important to speak to your GP if you notice any symptoms of cervical cancer.

Where are my ovaries?

The ovaries are also in the lower part of the abdomen, underneath the belly button. They are a set of two 3-5cm oval-shaped organs, similar to two large grapes and are attached to the womb by the Fallopian tubes. The ovaries get smaller after the menopause.

What causes ovarian cancer?

It’s not exactly clear what causes ovarian cancer, but we do know there are certain factors, such as older age, that increase the risk of ovarian cancer.

Smoking, being overweight or obese, and taking post-menopausal hormones can also increase the risk of ovarian cancer. These factors currently account for around 1 in 10 cases of ovarian cancer.

Unlike cervical cancer, there is currently no screening programme for ovarian cancer, which means that it is vital that anyone experiencing symptoms speaks to their GP.

Can ovarian cancer be prevented?

There is no definite way to prevent ovarian cancer, but women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer can sometimes be tested for genetic mutations, such as the ones affecting the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which increase the likelihood of developing ovarian cancer.

Women who are found to have genetic mutations can be more closely monitored to ensure that if cancer develops, it is diagnosed early.

Some people with genetic mutations choose to have surgery to remove the ovaries to reduce the risk of cancer developing.

Common signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer

The ovaries position in your tummy means that a common symptom of ovarian cancer is a persistent feeling of bloating.

Feeling full very quickly when eating, losing your appetite, pain in the stomach, needing to wee more often or a change in bowel habits are all symptoms of ovarian cancer. Other symptoms can include indigestion, back pain, feeling tired all the time, losing weight without trying and bleeding from the vagina after menopause.

Diagnosing cancer earlier means there are often more treatment options available and a higher chance of the cancer being successfully treated.