Cervical abnormalities, cervical cancer and the risk of developing other cancers

The following section will cover:

What are cervical abnormalities and CIN?

Cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) is the name given to abnormal changes in the cells of the outer surface of the cervix, called the ectocervix. These abnormalities are graded by how deep they are through the lining of the cervix. If the abnormal cells are only present in the lowest third of the lining covering the cervix, they are classified as CIN1 or low grade changes, if they are present in two-thirds of the lining they are classified as CIN2 or moderate changes, and if they are present throughout the full lining of the cervix they are called CIN3 or severe changes.

Cervical abnormalities and the link to other cancers

In recent years, research has shown that women who have a history of high grade cervical abnormalities (CIN2 and CIN3) or cervical cancer may have a higher chance or are at a ‘higher risk’ of going on to develop vaginal, vulval and anal cancers than the general population [1][2]. Women with a history of CIN1 do not have this increased risk. This increased risk is thought to be linked to the fact that women who have had cervical abnormalities or cervical cancer may be more vulnerable to infections by high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV), which is linked to all of the above cancers [1].

Increased risk of other cancers after cervical abnormalities and cervical cancer

The increases in the risks for vulval, anal, and vaginal cancer that have been shown in women with a history of high grade cervical abnormalities or cervical cancer are shown in the table below. These risks might sound high, but it is important to remember that the risks for these cancers in the general population are very small. All three are rare cancers, each accounting for less than 1% of the UK cancer cases each year [3][4][5]. This mean the general population risk is very low for these cancers (see table below). This means that even with a risk seven times higher than the general public, women with a history of high grade cervical abnormalities or cervical cancer still have a very low risk of developing vaginal cancer.

Type of cancer General population risk Increase in risk
Vulval 4/100,000 women in the UK affected [3] Two times higher [1]
Anal 2/100,000 women in the UK affected [4] Four and a half times higer [1]
Vaginal 0.7/100,000 women in the UK affected [5] Seven times higher [6]

 

Smoking can significantly increase your risk of developing these cancers. Smoking affects the immune system of the cells in these areas and can make it harder to prevent and clear high-risk HPV infections. If you are a smoker it is therefore a great idea to try and quit in order to give your immune system the best chance of fighting off any high-risk HPV infections. For more information or support in helping you quit, visit the NHS Smokefree website.

Precancerous stages and symptoms of other HPV-related cancers

Just like cervical cancer, each of these cancers also goes through a precancerous/abnormal stage. They are called:

However, since there are no screening programmes for anal, vaginal or vulval abnormalities or cancers, like there is for the cervix, it can be more difficult to diagnose them. This means that it is particularly important to be aware of any increased risk you may have and the symptoms associated with these cancers so that you can talk to your health care team if you have any concerns.

The main symptoms to look out for with vulval, anal and vaginal cancers are any unusual bleeding, discharge, pain or lumps. Full details on these symptoms can be found at the below links:

Remember, these symptoms can be associated with many other conditions that are not cancer related, but it is important to get them checked by a doctor.

Some research has also suggested that HPV vaccination could be beneficial for those who have a history of CIN or cervical cancer. But more research is needed on this and currently the HPV vaccination is not available to women with this history on the NHS.

Where to find support

Our support services are here for you if you need to talk, have questions or would like to connect with other women who understand what you are going through:

  • Our free Helpline is manned by trained volunteers all of whom have personal or professional experience with cervical abnormalities or cervical cancer
  • Our Forum offers a space to connect with other people who have similar experiences to you and understand what that feels like
  • Our Ask The Expert service gives you the opportunity to get answers to any questions you may have from health care professionals who are experts in their field. 

You may also find the following organisations useful: 


References

  1. Edgren G et al, 2007. Risk of anogenital cancer after diagnosis of cervical intraepithelial neoplasia: a prospective population-based study. The Lancet 8(4), 311–316. www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lanonc/PIIS1470-2045(07)70043-8.pdf. Accessed: 07.12.2016.
  2. Gaudet M et al, 2014. Incidence of ano-genital and head and neck malignancies in women with a previous diagnosis of cervical intraepithelial neoplasia. Gynecologic Oncology 134(3), 523-526. www.gynecologiconcology-online.net/article/S0090-8258(14)01206-2/abstract. Accessed: 07.12.2016.
  3. Cancer Research UK, 2013. Vulval cancer incidence statistics. www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/vaginal-cancer/incidence#heading-Zero. Accessed: 07.12.2016.
  4. Cancer Research UK, 2013. Anal cancer incidence statistics. www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/anal-cancer/incidence#heading-Zero. Accessed: 07.12.2016.
  5. Cancer Research UK, 2013. Vaginal cancer incidence statistics. www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/vaginal-cancer/incidence#heading -Zero. Accessed: 07.12.2016.
  6. Strander et al, 2007. Long term risk of invasive cancer after treatment for cervical intraepithelial neoplasia grade 3: population based cohort study. The British Medical Journal 335, 1077.
Date last updated: 
07 Dec 2016
Date due for review: 
07 Dec 2019

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