In Canada, 1550 Canadian women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2017 and 400 of them died from it. Patients in my medical practice often ask me “what is cervical cancer” and “how can I prevent cervical cancer.” The facts are that cervical cancer is a potentially fatal illness, that is very preventable and treatable if caught early. Cervical cancer screening (done through a pap smear) can identify cervical cancer and cervical “precancer” in the early stages when it can be treated and reduce the mortality rates.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cervix, the part of the female reproductive tract that connects the uterus (womb) with the vagina.
What is a Pap test?
Before cervical cancer develops, the cells of the cervix change and become abnormal. We are able to detect the abnormal cells with the Pap test. A Pap test is completed by a physician inserting a speculum into the vagina. Once the physician views the cervix, cells at the outer opening of cervix are collected with a swab.
What are risk factors for cervical cancer?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) – a sexually transmitted virus, is the main risk factor for developing cervical cancer. Other risk factors include: smoking, early onset of sexual activity, multiple sexual partners, history of sexually transmitted infections and infection with HIV.
How can I prevent cervical cancer
Cervical cancer may be prevented by early diagnosis and treatment, which starts with regular Pap tests. In addition, there are vaccines in Canada and the US that help protect against infection of certain HPV strains.
When do I start Pap tests and how often do I need a Pap test?
In Canada, we recommend starting screening for cervical cancer with a Pap test at age 25 years old. In the US, cervical cancer screening starts at age 21. The Canadian Task Force on Preventative Health Care recommends screening for cervical cancer every 3 years if Pap tests are normal. An abnormal Pap will require an earlier Pap test, or referral to gynaecology for additional testing. In Canada, cervical cancer screening typically stops at age 69.
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Fromovitz, M (2018) Invasive Cervical Cancer: Epidemiology, risk factors, clinical manefestations and diagnosis. In:UpToDate, Falk, S (Ed). UptoDate, Waltham, MA.