With so much information floating around, it’s sometimes hard to know what’s fact and what’s fiction. Here’s the truth behind some common myths.
The thing to keep in mind is that cervical cancer can be prevented. In fact, it’s one of the most preventable cancers. A Pap test procedure checks for changes in the cells of your cervix, so if any cell changes are found, they can be followed closely and, if needed, they can be treated so cancer never develops.
Use these guidelines to help reduce your risk of cervical cancer:
If you’ve ever been sexually active, make time to have Pap tests regularly starting at age 25, or 3 years after becoming sexually active, whichever is later.
Have a Pap test every 3 years.
Talk to your healthcare provider about the HPV vaccine and whether it’s right for you.
Have regular Pap tests even if you’re vaccinated against HPV, since the vaccine doesn’t protect against all types of HPV.
Smoking and second-hand smoke increases the risk of cervical cancer in women with HPV, so try to avoid both as much as possible.
If you’ve ever been sexually active, Pap tests should be a regular part of your health routine, even once you’ve been through menopause. The risk of cervical cancer does not decrease with age and continued regular screening is very important even if you have the same sexual partner or are no longer sexually active.
After 69, you can probably stop screening if your most recent three Pap tests haven’t required any follow-up testing and if you’ve had no serious abnormal changes in the past. Together, you and your healthcare provider should talk about whether you need to continue having them.
If your hysterectomy wasn’t due to cervical cancer and you do not have a history of highly abnormal cells, and your healthcare provider is confident that the cervix has been totally removed, it’s okay to stop routine cervical cancer screening.
If you had a hysterectomy and you still have your cervix, it’s important to continue having regular Pap tests.
If you have had a hysterectomy because of cervical cancer or have had highly abnormal cells, your healthcare provider will likely want to continue doing tests of the area where your cervix was to make sure that none of the cells left behind become abnormal. This test is called a vault smear and is usually done every year.
If you have had a hysterectomy, talk to your healthcare provider about whether Pap tests or vault smears are needed.
You can still be at risk for cervical cancer even if no one in your family has had it. Cervical cancer is caused by certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) that are spread by intimate sexual contact (which includes any skin-to-skin contact in the genital area). If you’ve ever been sexually active, follow the recommended guidelines and have Pap tests regularly unless you’ve had a total hysterectomy or you’re over the age of 69 and have talked to your healthcare provider about no longer needing one.
Cervical cancer can be present without feeling any symptoms. In fact, most people infected with HPV – the major cause of cervical cancer – never have symptoms. Pap tests check for cervical cell changes caused by HPV and can detect and treat abnormal cells long before any symptoms are felt, which is why screening is so important. If you do have symptoms between Pap tests (bleeding between periods, after sexual intercourse, or after menopause), see your healthcare provider.
The HPV vaccine does not protect against all the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. Women still need Pap tests regularly even if they have been vaccinated against HPV.
Although condoms work well to prevent other sexually transmitted infections (STI), they offer less protection against HPV. HPV can live in areas of the skin that condoms do not cover. Condoms can only protect areas of skin where the condom comes between each person. HPV may still pass when skin touches skin not covered by the condom.
An abnormal Pap test very rarely means you have cancer. An abnormal Pap test means the cells taken from your cervix look different from normal cells when seen under a microscope. These cell changes may develop into cervical cancer over many years if left untreated. All women with an abnormal result should be followed-up closely.
The Pap test only detects cell changes in the cervix. It does not tell you if you have an STI, including HPV, although HPV infections may result in abnormal cells that the Pap test may find. There are separate tests to check for other STIs (i.e. Chlamydia or Gonorrhea). The Pap test sample may be used to test for high-risk HPV.
In Alberta, when a woman 30 years or older is found to have changes on her Pap test that are hard for the lab to interpret, the sample may be tested for high-risk HPV. This test helps decide whether the woman should go for more specialized tests. HPV reflex testing is not recommended for women younger than 30. This is because HPV is very common in women younger than 30 and will usually clear on its own. Pap tests are still the best way to find abnormal cell changes. Talk to your healthcare provider if you would like more information about HPV reflex testing.
Genital HPV is spread easily by intimate skin-to-skin contact in the genital area. This includes touching, oral sex, or intercourse with a partner of either sex. It is important to remember that having HPV doesn’t necessarily mean that you or your partner was unfaithful. The virus can go undetected for many years, which is why most people will find it difficult to know when they were infected or who infected them. You or your partner may have been infected long before you became a couple.
What we do know is that infection with HPV is very common, and at least 7 out of 10 people will have it at some point in their lifetime. Most times, it will disappear on its own.
Over 70% of sexually active people will get HPV in their lifetime. Most people infected with HPV never show any symptoms. The body’s immune system usually clears the virus within 2 years. Some low risk types of HPV can cause genital warts. About 15 high-risk types of HPV can cause cervical cell changes if the HPV infection does not go away. If untreated these cell changes can develop into cervical cancer over many years. However, with monitoring cervical cell changes can be treated so that cancer does not develop.