By Tanya Gallant MSII Northern Ontario School Of Medicine
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is when the normal cells in the cervix grow out of control and have an ‘abnormal’ appearance (Canadian Cancer Society, 2009). Women whose cervical cancer is found and treated early typically do quite well. This stresses the importance of finding the cancer early.
In Canada, 1300 new cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed in 2011 and the chances of a women developing cervical cancer is 1 in 153 (Canadian Cancer Encyclopedia, 2011).
Approximately 350 women in Canada will die from it this year (Canadian Cancer Encyclopedia, 2011).
What are the common signs of cervical cancer?
It is important to note that many women do not feel any symptoms at first, but the most common symptom that women experience is bleeding from the vagina. Bleeding may happen after sex, between menstrual cycles, and after menopause (Canadian Cancer Encyclopedia, 2009).
Is there a test for cervical cancer?
Yes, there is! There is a test called the ‘Pap test’ that is used to screen women for cervical cancer. Women who are 18 years old or who are sexually active should get screened (Canadian Cancer Encyclopedia, 2011). Once you go to your appointment to see your doctor, he/she will take a look at the walls of your vagina by using a thing called a speculum. The testing part is by taking a painless swab of cells from the cervix (hence, cervical cancer) and sending them to the lab to have them checked under a microscope.
If the cells are normal, women normally are checked every 1 to 3 years until the age of 69 or until the doctor finds something abnormal (Canadian Cancer Encyclopedia, 2011).
If the cells are abnormal, the doctor will have you come back to see whether follow-up testing is needed (Canadian Cancer Encyclopedia, 2011).
A new cervical cancer test is being considered on PEI to replace the test just mentioned. It will test for both cancer and the human papillomavirus (discussed later). It is currently being tested in Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Ontario (CBC, 2011).
How do we treat cervical cancer?There are three main ways that we treat cervical cancer (Canadian Cancer Society, 2009):
- Radiation therapy
After a person has had treatment for cervical cancer, they will need to be checked from time to time to see if the cancer has come back or if the cancer has spread.
How can I prevent cervical cancer?
The human papillomavirus vaccine is now available.
What is HPV?
HPV stands for the human papillomavirus. It is spread by skin-to-skin contact and sex (CDC, 2009). HPV causes up to 70 percent of cervical cancers (CBC, 2011).The risk of getting HPV increases with the number of sexual partners you and your partner have had.
If HPV is so common, why should I be concerned?
The majority of the people infected with HPV fight off the virus within two years of getting it, typically without treatment (CDC, 2009). Unfortunately, a small amount of people cannot seem to get rid of the virus. In these people, there is a greater chance that HPV will turn into cancer. This stresses the importance of getting tested regularly.
What is the HPV vaccine?
At the moment, two types of vaccine are available: Gardasil and Cervarix (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2010).
Gardasil is given by three different vaccine shots, which are given two and six months after the first. It protects against HPV types 6 and 11, which cause 90% of genital warts, as well as HPV types 16 and 18, which are high-risk types and cause about 70% of cervical cancer (Gardasil, 2010).
Cervarix is also given by three different vaccine shots, which are given one and six months after the first. It protects against HPV types 16 and 18, which cause 70% of cervical cancer (Cervarix, 2010).
Who should get the HPV vaccine?
The HPV vaccine in the US is recommended for all girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26 years (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2010). Both vaccines work best if given before a person starts having sex because the vaccine does not get rid of it once you have it. The vaccine may still give some protection to those who are under the age of 26 and sexually active, as well as have genital warts, a positive HPV test, and/or an abnormal Pap test (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2010).
Where can I get more information?
Your health care professional is your best person of contact for any questions or concerns you may have.
The Canadian Cancer Society has a great user-friendly website on cervical cancer that can be found by pushing this link: http://www.cancer.ca/Canada-wide/About%20cancer/Types%20of%20cancer/What%20is%20cervical%20cancer.aspx
The Public Health Agency of Canada has a great site on the safety and effectiveness of the HPV vaccine: http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/std-mts/hpv-vph/fact-faits-vacc-eng.php