Cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer that affects women. According to the World Health Organization, over half a million women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2018 and more than 300,000 died from the disease.
As with many forms of cancer, early detection can greatly improve the outcome.
Here we look at cervical cancer screening, when it needs to start and how it can make a difference in combating this prevalent disease.
WHAT IS CERVICAL CANCER?
Cervical cancer develops in the opening to the uterus in an area called the cervix. In the early stages, there are few if any symptoms which is why cervical cancer screening is so important.
The disease is almost always associated with infection by the human papillomaviruses or HPV and as such women who are sexually active are most at risk.
In many cases, HPV resolves on its own and leaves the individual with little or no symptoms. Repeated infection, however, increases the risk of developing cervical cancer.
CERVICAL CANCER SCREENING
If it is detected early, cervical cancer is very treatable and that’s why screening plays such an important role in combatting the disease. It can take between three and seven years for cervical cancer to develop by which time, if undetected, more invasive treatment may be needed.
Across many countries today, regular screening is undertaken to check for cell changes in the cervix. The screening initially involves what is commonly known as the pap test or smear which checks for the presence of HPV. If pre-cancers are found, cells can be removed, and treatment applied that prevent cervical cancer from developing.
During the appointment, the physician will take a small sample of cells from the cervix. This is a very quick and painless process and should only take a few minutes. If HPV is not detected, then no further tests are required. If HPV is found, then the cells are checked again for any abnormalities.
CURRENT CERVICAL CANCER SCREENING GUIDELINES
The cervical cancer screening guidelines in countries like the USA are very clear. Most countries follow the guidelines set out by WHO which have a similar focus:
- Screening should start at the age of 25.
- It’s recommended to have a primary HPV test every 5 years. This means that the physician simply tests for the presence of the virus rather than also checking the cervix for abnormal cells.
- Some individuals will have an annual pap test which can be used to discuss risk factors associated with cervical cancer.
- Screening for cervical cancer generally continues until the age of 65. If someone has reached this age and has no history in the past 10 years or hasn’t had a more serious diagnosis, screening can be stopped.
- If the individual has had a total hysterectomy, which involved the removal of the cervix, they do not need to be screened again unless they have been treated for pre-cancer or cervical cancer. If the cervix was not removed during the operation, screening should continue.
- Even if someone has had a vaccination for HPV, they should still maintain regular screening.
While the majority of cervical cancer patients are at risk because of HPV, there are smaller populations that also have a risk factor associated with them.
These include those with compromised immune systems, women who were exposed to diethylstilbestrol before birth and those who have been diagnosed with a serious pre-cancer in the past.
It’s important to liaise with a health care provider to ensure effective screening as this may need to be done more often than every five years.
HOW ACCURATE ARE THE RESULTS?
False-negative and false-positive results can occur with cervical cancer screening as can happen with any medical test. That means cancer cells may appear to be present according to the test when in fact they are not and vice versa.
When going for cervical cancer screening, women should avoid the following things 2 days before their test:
- Sexual intercourse
- Using hygiene products or vaginal medications
WHEN TO STOP CERVICAL CANCER SCREENING
Cervical cancer screening guidelines suggest that individuals should have regular checks between the ages of 25 and 65.
When someone reaches the age of 65 and they have had an adequate negative prior screening, it is usually safe to stop. Screening does not need to start again. If the individual has had a negative screening in the 10 years before, it’s important to continue testing.
Cervical cancer is the fourth highest cancer that affects women and its early detection can make a big difference.
When discovered quickly enough, the prognosis following treatment is good. It’s essential to be aware of cervical cancer screening guidelines and to make sure that these important tests are carried out.