It’s estimated that one Nova Scotian is diagnosed with cervical cancer each week. Most people diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer are not up-to-date with their screening or have never been screened.
That’s why Pap tests are so important. They’re the first line of defence in preventing cervical cancer and are the only way to detect subtle changes in your cervical cells that could develop into cancer.
A Pap test is a simple procedure: a health-care provider swabs the cervix and the swab is analyzed to flag cell abnormalities. Having the test every three years can help catch any changes in these cells.
New screening guidelines for Nova Scotians
Knowing when you should start getting a Pap test matters.
Nova Scotia recently changed its Pap-test guidelines. Starting this spring, people with a cervix who are (or ever have been) sexually active are advised to begin getting the test at age 25. (Previous guidelines set the start age at 21).
This change reflects a new understanding of how to protect people from the harmful strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that can cause cervical cancer.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, with about 75% of sexually active people contracting it over their lifetimes. Most HPV strains are harmless, but some can develop into genital warts and others into precancerous cells that can lead to a range of cancers, including cervical cancer.
Early screening risks
Research shows that the vast majority of women under age 25 who have been exposed to HPV (including the type that causes precancerous cells to form) do not go on to develop cervical cancer. In young women, the precancerous cells usually go away on their own and do not require treatment.
Treatment for pre-cancer of the cervix can be invasive and may have long-term consequences on a woman’s fertility and her ability to carry a baby to term. That’s why Pap tests and cervical cancer treatment for women under the age of 25 is not recommended. The bottom line is that at that age, the treatment may do more harm than good.
HPV vaccine offers protection
The HPV vaccine protects against HPV-related cancers. It’s most effective when given before a person becomes sexually active. In Nova Scotia, all Grade 7 children receive the vaccine as part of their school vaccinations.
The vaccine is less effective for sexually active people who have already been exposed to the virus, making regular Pap tests a vital tool in preventing cervical cancer for most Nova Scotians.
Regular screening essential
Don’t let screening fall off your radar, regardless of your circumstances. All sexually active people over the age of 25 with a cervix should have Pap tests every three years.
Even if you’re no longer sexually active or you’ve finished menopause, you still need a Pap test every three years until you reach age 70. If your Pap tests have been clear for 10 years, you may be able to stop getting the test at age 70. If you have had a total hysterectomy, you probably don’t need a Pap test – but check with your doctor to be sure.
You may need a Pap test every year if you’ve been treated for abnormal cells (cervical dysplasia) or cervical cancer. The same goes if you have risk factors like a family history of cervical cancer or a weakened immune system (are HIV positive or going through chemotherapy, for example). Always chat with your doctor about the best screening strategy for you.
No family doctor?
If you don’t have a family doctor or access to primary care, you can still get a Pap test. The Cervical Cancer Prevention Program lists Well Woman Clinics that provide Pap tests in communities across Nova Scotia. You can book an appointment with a female doctor or nurse to get your Pap test done.
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