Detecting Cervical Cancer Early Saves Lives
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. It can spread to nearby areas leading to the growth of a cancerous tumour. Once the tumour develops it can then spread the cancer to other parts of the body.
Sometimes, pre-cancerous conditions don’t immediately lead to cancer, but it’s important to identify any changes as soon as possible. These conditions may first lead to the development of abnormal cells, but if they are left untreated for a lengthy period, they could become cancerous too.
What is HPV and how is it linked to cervical cancer?
Certain strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) play a role in causing cervical cancer. HPV is a group of over 100 related viruses which are primarily spread through sexual activity. Most sexually active people will develop an HPV infection in their lifetime without knowing it because HPV often doesn’t have any symptoms. The virus will often go away like a common cold, but high-risk HPV that doesn’t clear up on its own can lead to cervical cancer.
When exposed to HPV, the body’s immune system typically prevents the virus from doing harm. In a small percentage of people, however, the virus survives for years, contributing to the process that causes some cervical cells to change, leading to the pre-cancerous condition that can develop into cervical cancer.
Ways to reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer
Two of the best ways to reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer is to:
- Get screened for HPV
- Receiving an HPV vaccine if you are eligible
Screening for HPV involves your doctor taking a small sample of cells from your cervix with a swab and sending them to a lab. The lab looks for the presence of HPV and whether the high-risk HPV types commonly associated with cervical cancer are present.
While it sounds similar, this is not the same as a Pap test. The process is similar, but a Pap test does not directly look for the HPV virus, and it could miss some abnormal cell growth. Getting screened for HPV is designed to help detect abnormal cell growth and possible risks for cervical cancer. However, Pap tests are equally important for women’s health, so on most occasions, you can get both tests completed during the same appointment with your doctor.
HPV vaccines can prevent cervical cancer and pre-cancerous cervical cell changes, but they do not treat HPV infections you may already have, or treat diseases or cancers related to HPV. They simply help protect against future HPV infection. It’s advised to get the vaccine around age 11 or 12 for maximum protection. Most importantly, it’s recommended to get the vaccine before becoming sexually active.
Talk to your doctor to find out if an HPV test is right for you
Your doctor is the best person to speak to about your risk of developing cervical cancer, and whether an HPV test should be performed. They may recommend an HPV test as part of your regular cervical screening if you are a woman, over the age of 30, and are sexually active.
Please download the HPV test brochure here to learn more.
Having a conversation about sexual health, and more specifically cervical cancer, with a doctor is key to arriving at the most appropriate recommendation based on a patient’s unique health care journey.
For further information about HPV testing, please visit: www.lifelabs.com/test/hpv-testing
- Canadian Cancer Society. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Test. https://cancer.ca/en/treatments/tests-and-procedures/human-papillomavirus-hpv-test
- Canadian Cancer Society. Cervical Cancer Statistics. https://cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-types/cervical/statistics
- Public Health Agency of Canada. Cervical Cancer. https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/chronic-diseases/cancer/cervical-cancer.html
- Mayo Clinic. Cervical Cancer. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cervical-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20352501