In 2018 over 500,000 new cases of cervical cancer occurred making it clear that this cancer is one of the most common cancers among women worldwide. Unlike other cancers that do not have a specific cause, cervical cancer can be caused by HPV. The Human Papillomavirus causes approximately 70% of all cervical cancer cases and therefore, getting vaccinated against this virus can help prevent most cases of this cancer.
Apart from other things you can do to prevent or reduce your risk of cervical cancer, early detection is another very significant step one can take in fighting this cancer and enabling more effective treatment.
Through early detection, there has been a reduction in the number of deaths caused by this cancer. So, what exactly is early detection all about?
Need for Early Detection
Cervical cancer screening is the best way to detect this cancer early. However, screening is not just about having a pap test done regularly. It’s worth remembering that there are certain guidelines to follow when dealing with cervical cancer screening. Before looking at the guidelines, let’s understand which tests are used in cervical cancer screening.
Cervical cancer screening can be done through a Pap test commonly referred to as pap smear (cytology), through a Human Papillomavirus (HPV) test, or a combination of the two tests.
- The pap smear test looks for cancer and pre-cancers (changes in the cervical cells) in the cervix. These cervical changes are caused by the HPV virus and if not treated they can lead to cervical cancer.
- The Human Papillomavirus test is used to check for the type of the HPV virus that cause cervical (type 16 and 18).
Most people think these tests are only done to find cancer and treat it at its early stage but that is not the case. They are done to find pre-cancers which can lead to cervical cancer. When any abnormalities are found, a biopsy can be ordered by your doctor and the pre-cancers can be treated to prevent the formation of cervical cancer.
Guidelines for cervical cancer screening
The guidelines are as follows:
- Screening should begin when a woman is 21 years old and continue thereafter. Women who are 21 to 29 years old should have a pap test done once in 3 years. HPV testing at this age is not used for screening but can be used as a follow up test after an abnormal pap test.
- Women 30 to 65 years old should have a pap test once every 3 years, HPV test once every 5 years and a combination of the two tests once every 5years.
- Women above 65 years and who have had regular screening in the last 10 years and have not had any serious pre-cancers for the past 20 years should stop getting screened.
Exceptions to these guidelines
- Women who have had serious pre-cancers – they need to continue with regular testing for 20 years after the abnormality was found.
- Women who have a suppressed immune system due to HIV, the long term use of steroids or have undergone an organ transplant – they need to be screened more often, the frequency of which will depend on the recommendations made by their doctors.
- Women who have undergone a total hysterectomy (the removal of the uterus and cervix) – they should not undergo screening unless the hysterectomy was done to treat cervical cancer or pre-cancer. However, if the hysterectomy did not include the removal of the cervix, then they should continue with regular screening.
Other important things that every woman should be aware of about cervical cancer screening include:
- Women should not stop getting screening after having children,
- Women of any age should not be screened every year (whatever the screening method used),
- Even those women who have been vaccinated against HPV virus should still be screened for cervical cancer in accordance with the above guidelines.
The importance of cervical cancer screening cannot be emphasised enough. If it is done as recommended and widely used it will help noticeably in the reduction of cervical cancer deaths because, apart from helping to detect cervical cancer in its early stages and so allow early treatment of the cancer, screening can help in actually preventing the cancer by detecting pre-cancers and allowing pre-cancers to be treated before they cause cervical cancer.
Join us, at IMT, as we try to raise awareness about early detection of cervical cancer by sharing this article with your friends and family and so help reduce the over 200,000 deaths caused by cervical cancer each year.