A study funded by the NHS Cancer Screening Programme has found that many women under 30 with cervical cancer are diagnosed more than 3 months after first having symptoms, often because they did not recognise the symptoms as serious.

Cervical cancer is nearly always caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), and approximately 1 in 134 women get cervical cancer at some point in their lives - it is most common in women in their thirties.

In England, the NHS offers screening to prevent cervical cancer to women aged 25-64 but study author Dr Lindsay Forbes believes more education around the risks of HPV is needed for young women.

The Promoting Early Cancer Presentation Group lead at King’s College London said: "Our study suggests that women, especially women under 25, are often not aware of the symptoms of cervical cancer and delay seeing their doctors.

"A better understanding of the importance of these symptoms could help promote earlier diagnosis and improve survival in this group. Cervical screening tests aim to prevent cancer from developing – the test looks for changes caused by long-standing HPV infection in women without symptoms. Women who have persistent symptoms need to be offered a proper examination, not simply a cervical screening test."

Under 25s most likely to delay
Researchers interviewed 128 women under 30 with a recent diagnosis of cervical cancer and, of these, 31% had been diagnosed after going to the doctor because they had symptoms while 67% had been diagnosed as a result of routine NHS screening.

Among the 40 women diagnosed after going to the doctor with their symptoms, the majority had reported bleeding after sex or between periods. Over a quarter (11 women) had waited for more than 3 months to see a doctor; 10 of these said that they had not known what the symptoms of cervical cancer were. Women under 25 were more likely to delay compared with women aged 25-29.

Many women, 60%, also reported that it had taken more than 3 months to be diagnosed after first going to the doctor. There was some evidence that women did not re-attend quickly after their first consultation despite symptoms persisting.

Dr Anita Lim of Queen Mary University added: "The majority of women will experience symptoms [of cervical cancer] at some point in their lives, and usually they are no cause for concern. However, if these symptoms persist, then women should seek an appointment with their GP so that they can be examined and followed up if need be. They should also be encouraged to return to their GP if the symptoms don’t get better."