The importance of prevention and screening for cervical cancer
Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second most common type of gynaecological cancer. In North America, it is the eighth most common cancer. The incidence of cervical cancer has decreased in the developed world because of regular Pap screening. Pap tests detect abnormal cells before they become cancer and further treatments can prevent them from ever becoming cancer.
“Sadly, not all women go for regular testing and so we continue to see this lethal disease,” said Dr. Georgina Wilcock, an Obstetrician/Gynecologist at The Scarborough Hospital. “Each year in Canada, it’s estimated there are 1,300 new cases of cervical cancer diagnosed and 390 women will die of the disease. “
For these reasons, Dr. Wilcock reminds women about the importance of regular Pap test screening, which has been shown to decrease the incidence of cervical cancer by 50 per cent.
The Pap test is a quick, simple and usually painless procedure where a doctor scrapes and removes cells from the surface of the cervix with a small brush or spatula. The cells are then examined in a laboratory. In the event that a Pap test shows changes or abnormalities in the cervical cells, follow-up tests or procedures may be done.
Currently in Canada, it is recommended that women between the ages of 18 and 69 (or women under 18 who are sexually active) undergo cervical screening.
“Although the cause of cancer in general remains somewhat of a mystery, the cause of cervical cancer is not. The culprit is almost always the human papilloma virus (HPV) infection, one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs),” points out Dr. Wilcock.
While some types of HPV cause genital warts, other strains of the virus can infect the cervix and then cause abnormal changes within the cells that may slowly progress to cancer.
There are several other important steps women can take to minimize their risk of developing cervical cancer:
- Get the HPV vaccine – The world’s first vaccination against HPV was approved in Canada and the U.S. in 2006. The vaccination provides protection from four different types of HPV – two of which cause 70 per cent of cervical cancer. In Ontario, this vaccine is given free to girls in grade eight. It is given at this young age because it has been shown that this is the best age for young women to develop a strong immunity to the virus.
- Practice safe sex – The HPV virus is most commonly transmitted via sexual contact and intercourse. Refraining from genital contact with an infected person or using a condom will reduce the risk of HPV infection. However, condoms are not 100 per cent effective as they only protect the covered area.
- Stop smoking – Both tobacco smoking and exposure to second hand smoke have been associated with the development of cervical cancer. Quitting smoking can reduce the chance of developing the disease.
And, of course, ensure that you are receiving regular Pap testing.