A massive 43 per cent of Australian women are not having regular screens for cervical cancer. And according to the Australia Cervical Cancer Foundation chief executive, 90 per cent of the women who are going to get cervical cancer or die from it are in that group.
Are you one of these women who keep putting off their pap smear or screen? We’ve got information on whether you’re at risk and what the symptoms are.
Cervical cancer can be effectively treated when it is found early and most women with early cervical cancer will be cured.
In addition, in Australia the five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with cervical cancer is 72 per cent.
What Is Cervical Cancer
According to the Cancer Council of Australia, cervical cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix.
Cancer most commonly begins in the area of the cervix called the transformation zone, but it can spread to tissues around the cervix, such as the vagina, or to other parts of the body, such as the lungs or liver.
The Two Main Types of Cervical Cancer
These are named after the cells they start in;
1. Squamous cell carcinoma – the most common type, accounting for about 70 per cent of cases.
2. Adenocarcinoma – a less common type, starting in the glandular cells of the cervix.
Adenocarcinoma is more difficult to diagnose because it occurs higher up in the cervix and is harder to reach with the instruments a doctor uses during a screening test.
A small number of cervical cancers feature both squamous cells and glandular cells. These cancers are known as adenosquamous carcinomas or mixed carcinomas.
Other rarer types of cancer that can start in the cervix include small cell carcinoma and cervical sarcoma.
What Are The Symptoms?
Scarily, in its early stages, cervical cancer usually has no symptoms. Therefore, the only way to know if there are abnormal cells in the cervix, which may develop into cervical cancer, is to have a pap test or smear.
If early cell changes develop into cervical cancer, the most common signs include;
- vaginal bleeding between periods, after menopause or after sexual intercourse
- pain during sexual intercourse
- an unusual vaginal discharge
- heavier periods or periods that last longer than usual
- excessive tiredness
- leg pain or swelling
- lower back pain.
These symptoms can also be caused by other conditions. But see your GP if you are worried.
What Happens During A Pap Test And HPV Test?
A doctor or nurse gently inserts an instrument called a speculum into the vagina to get a clear view of the cervix. The doctor uses a brush or spatula to remove some cells from the surface of the cervix. This can feel slightly uncomfortable, but it usually takes only a minute or two.
The sample is placed onto a glass slide or put into a fluid and then sent to a laboratory for examination by a pathologist. The results of the screening test are used to predict your level of risk for precancerous cell changes or cervical cancer.
If you’re at high risk you’ll be monitored or referred to a specialist for further tests or treatment.
HPV Test To Replace Pap Test
Recently scientific evidence has found screening women for Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a more effective way of preventing cervical cancer. This is because the HPV virus causes cervical cancer.
As such, in Australia from May 2017, an HPV test will replace the pap test as part of the National Cervical Screening Program.
While the current program recommends two-yearly pap tests for women aged 18 to 70 who are or have ever been sexually active. Under the new program, women aged 25 to 74 will be tested for HPV every five years.
Am I At Risk?
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by the HPV virus but there are also other risk factors such as smoking and taking the pill.
Risk factors include:
Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
This is the name for a group of viruses. It is a common infection that affects the surface of different areas of the body, such as the cervix, vagina and skin.
Genital HPV is usually spread via the skin during sexual contact. About four out of five people will become infected with genital HPV at some time in their lives.
Most people will not be aware they have HPV as it is usually harmless and doesn’t cause symptoms. Only a few types of genital HPV cause cervical cancer.
Smoking And Passive Smoking
Chemicals in tobacco can damage the cells of the cervix and this makes cancer more likely to develop in women with HPV.
Weakened Immune System
The immune system helps the body get rid of HPV. Therefore, women with a weakened immune system are at increased risk of cervical cancer.
In addition, this includes women with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) and women who take medicines that lower their immunity. Ask your doctor if this applies to you.
Taking An Oral Contraceptive
Research has shown that women who have taken the pill for five years or more are at increased risk of developing cervical cancer. The reason for this is not clear.
However, the risk is small and the pill can help protect against other types of cancer, such as uterine and ovarian cancers. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned.
Diethylstilbestrol (DES) Exposure
DES is a synthetic (artificial) form of the female hormone oestrogen. DES was prescribed to pregnant women from the 1940s to the early 1970s to prevent miscarriage. Studies have shown that the daughters of women who took DES have a small but increased risk of developing a rare type of cervical adenocarcinoma.
You Can Be Vaccinated Against HPV
The HPV vaccine provides protection against two strains of HPV that are known to cause 70 to 80 per cent cervical cancers. The vaccine also offers some protection against other less common cancers in women, including vaginal, vulvar and anal cancers.
As part of the National HPV Vaccination Program, the vaccine is free for girls and boys aged 12 to 13. The vaccine helps to protect males against penile and anal cancers.
Some older people who are already sexually active may still benefit from the HPV vaccine.
However, the vaccine does not provide protection against all types of HPV, so it’s important to continue having screening tests even if you’ve been vaccinated.
Is It Cervical Cancer Treatable?
Yes it definitely is, but the sooner the better really, which is why screening and early detection is so crucial.
1. For precancerous abnormalities or very early cervical cancer, treatment may include loop excision, cone biopsy or laser. These are all methods for removing the abnormal cells.
2. Treatment for early stage or localised cervical cancer may include surgery, or a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
Some treatments for cervical cancer can affect your ability to have children in the future. There may be some options available that can allow you to have children, these are called fertility-sparing options. If it gets to this point your doctor will discuss these with you.
To get more information visit the Cancer Council Australia or maybe you might like to contact your doctor with any questions or concerns.