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Why cervical cancer screening and prevention are so important

If you have certain risk factors, your doctor may recommend more-frequent Pap smears, regardless of your age. Photo: Pexels

(Tina Dawn/ VM Med) — Cervical cancer screening is an essential part of every woman’s healthcare. Because it’s a disease that grows slowly, proper screening can prevent it from becoming more serious and treatment more invasive.

The two most important tests your gynecologist will request that you take for cervical cancer screening are cervical cytology (also called the Pap test or Pap smear), and testing for human papillomavirus (HPV), or both.

HPV screening checks for the presence of HPV. HPV spreads through any kind of sexual contact and is known to cause nearly all cervical cancers.

What’s a Pap test?

A Pap test is a screening test that can detect cell changes in the cervix that may lead to cancer before people feel any symptoms and help prevent cervical cancer.

The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for pre-cancers, cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately. It is recommended that women who are sexually active get a Pap test every two to three years. Your doctor may recommend you are tested more frequently depending on your individual risk factors.

Many clinics have now replaced Pap tests with HPV tests as their main tool to screen for cervical cancer.

What’s an HPV test?

The HPV test looks for the virus (human papillomavirus) that can cause these cell changes. Both the Pap test and HPV test can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic. During the Pap test, the doctor will use a plastic or metal instrument, called a speculum, to gently widen your vagina. This helps the doctor examine the vagina and the cervix and collect cells from the cervix and the area around it. The cells are then sent to a laboratory to be examined for any pre-cancers.

The Pap smear is usually done in conjunction with a pelvic exam. In women older than age 30, the Pap test may be combined with a test for human papillomavirus. In some cases, the HPV test may be done instead of a Pap smear.

If your test shows that something might not be normal, your doctor will contact you and figure out how best to follow up. There are many reasons why test results might not be normal, and an abnormal test isn’t always cause for alarm. It usually does not mean you have cancer.

If your test results show cells that are not normal and may become cancer, your doctor will let you know if you need to be treated. In most cases, quick treatment prevents cervical cancer from developing

Risk factors for cervical cancer & its symptoms

If you have certain risk factors, your doctor may recommend more-frequent Pap smears, regardless of your age. These risk factors may include smoking, use of birth control pills, having many sexual partners, and starting sex at a young age, HIV infection, a weakened immune system due to chemotherapy, and a history of smoking.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that in more than 90 percent of cases, it is caused by HPV infection.

Symptoms of cervical cancer can be abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain, painful sexual intercourse, weight loss, fatigue not alleviated by rest, difficulty urinating, vaginal discharge, nausea, and a general feeling of malaise. The treatment of cervical cancer includes chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery. Globally, it is the fourth commonest cancer resulting in death among women.

If you’re older than 65 or have had a total hysterectomy your doctor may recommend that cervical cancer screening is no longer necessary. It’s best to discuss your options with your doctor. If you continue to be sexually active with multiple partners, they may recommend that you continue Pap testing.

HPV prevention via vaccination

One of the most major scientific breakthroughs in recent years has been the development of HPV vaccines, which may change the future for women of tomorrow. HPV vaccines have been shown to protect against two to seven strains of high-risk HPV that cause cervical cancers.

Experts believe that these vaccines can help prevent up to 90 percent of cervical cancers.

HPV infections are the most common sexually transmitted infections. Most HPV infections occur without symptoms and resolve without treatment. If you’re sexually active, you most likely have had an asymptomatic HPV infection at some time. It’s why it’s so important to get regular screenings to protect yourself.

The most important thing to remember about cervical cancer is that it’s a slow progressing, but still life-threatening disease. With ample screening tests available at your gynecology clinic, women can discover precancerous cells that can be removed promptly before they get the chance to develop into cancer. With early diagnosis and treatment, the outlook is very good. Your health, therefore, depends on your and your doctor’s vigilance and regular screenings.