Regular testing is the key to cervical cancer prevention

Cervical cancer is a major issue however does not have the same widespread awareness as other cancers such as breast cancer – particularly in terms of its ability to affect women as the years role by. 

Did you know? Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers.
A study conducted by the Keele University in the UK discovered that one in five of the 3,000 new cases of cervical cancer diagnosed each year are aged 65 or over. Amazingly this age group accounts for half of all cervical cancer deaths in Great Britain. Because the virus can lay dormant for years before developing into cervical cancer later in life, many have a false sense of security - believing that being in a monogamous relationship and having a single sexual partner protects them from the disease. But this isn’t necessarily the case.

In Australia, the statistics are also revealing. In 2012 there were 226 deaths caused by cervical cancer with roughly 780 women diagnosed annually. Screening is crucial to detecting and reducing the risk. 

Regular screening
The National Cervical Screening Program recommends that all women aged between 18 and 70 who have ever been sexually active have regular pap tests. Women should start having pap smears every two years from 18-20 years of age, or one to two years after sexual activity commences, whichever is later.

A pap smear helps to prevent cancer by detecting abnormal precancerous cells in the cervix. A doctor uses an instrument such as a brush or spatula to remove some cells from the surface of the cervix. Although it may feel slightly uncomfortable, it usually only takes a minute or two and thankfully involves little or no pain these days.

Did you know? Cervical cancer is the second most common type of cancer found in women and is one of the deadliest.

Breaking down the risk factors
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). This is group of wart viruses, a common infection that affects the vagina and the cervix. Four out of five people will become infected with a type of HPV at some time in their lives. Genital HPV is spread via the skin during sexual contact. In most women, the immune system quickly clears the virus and no treatment is required. HPV does not usually cause symptoms. 

Other risk factors for cervical cancer include smoking and Diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure. Tobacco can damage the cells of the cervix and make cancer more likely to develop. DES is a type of oestrogen-based medication prescribed to women from the 1950s to the 1970s to prevent miscarriage. Studies have shown that daughters of women who took DES have an increased risk of developing a rare type of adenocarcicoma (a malignant tumour that forms in mucus-secreting glands).

The early stages of cervical cancer have no symptoms and are only detected through a Pap test. However, if symptoms appear later on they will usually come in the form of vaginal bleeding between periods, after menopause or after intercourse. Other symptoms include pain during intercourse, unusual vaginal discharge, excessive tiredness, leg pain or swelling and lower back pain. If you are presenting ongoing symptoms you should consult your general practitioner.

Did you know? National cervical cancer prevention week is 16-22nd November 2015.

Testing and prevention
The HPV vaccine, also known as Gardasil, protects against two strains that are known to cause 70% of cervical cancers. The HPV vaccine is free for girls and boys aged 12-13 in Australia. Some adults who are already sexually active may still benefit from the vaccine, but unfortunately the HPV vaccine can not be used to treat those already diagnosed with precancerous cells or cancer.

Former Australian of the Year Professor Ian Frazer and his team developed Gardasil, the world’s first vaccine against cervical cancer. The immunologist was awarded the European Inventor Award in Paris in June 2015. The prestigious international award recognises the profound benefit to people and economies around the world. Gardasil is now used in 121 countries and has been administered more than 125 million times.

Pap tests can be administered by a general practitioner and do not require any additional fee above a standard consultation fee. Medical centres with bulk billing don’t have any out-of-pocket expenses for women. 

Did you know? Regular pap tests can prevent around 90% of cervical cancers. 
If a pap test shows low-stage abnormal cells, doctors will generally recommend another pap smear 12 months later, by which time the immune system will have usually removed the virus. If the abnormal cells are high-stage, women will usually be referred to a gynaecologist to have a colposcopy of or a biopsy. If cervical cancer is diagnosed, further tests will be required to determine the extent of the cancer. These tests could involve blood tests, examinations under anaesthetic, chest x-rays or scans such as CT, MRI or PET scans.

The good news? Fatality rates in Australia have halved since the introduction of the National Cervical Cancer Screening Program in 1991.
Historic sexual activity remains a threat for HPV and cervical cancer, as the infection can lie dormant for years, demonstrating the need for women to continue getting regular pap tests regardless of age.

In Australia, the five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with cervical cancer is 72%. However, this figure is reliant on women’s vigilance with regular pap tests. If you present any symptoms or have missed your scheduled test, be sure to consult your doctor immediately. 

Want to do something to help? 
Take the TechNo challenge! This September turn off your tv and mobile for 12 to 48 hours and raise much needed money to allow women in developing countries to chance to be screened for cervical cancer. It costs the ACCF only $5 to provide a screening for one woman in a developing country - see more here.

The latest news
Federal Minister for Health, the Hon. Sussan Ley MP has announced a National Cancer Screening Register and a new 5-yearly HPV test for cervical cancer that will replace the 2-yearly Pap test from 1 May 2017. International evidence shows that HPV is the virus that causes 99% of cervical cancers. These changes are estimated to prevent an additional 140 cervical cancers each year and the new cervical screening test will be available on the Medicare Benefits Schedule on 1 May 2017. The renewed National Cervical Screening Program will invite women aged 25 to 74 years to undertake a HPV test every 5 years. Find out more here. 

For more information visit the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation.

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