Just the facts: Answering your questions about cervical screening
Are you up to date on your cervical screening?
The Ontario Cervical Screening Program recommends going for cervical screening every three years if you have a cervix, are age 21 to 69, and are or have ever been sexually active.
“Cervical cancer is almost entirely preventable,” says Dr. Joan Murphy, Clinical Lead for the Ontario Cervical Screening Program. “This is why regular cervical screening is so important.”
October 21 to 25 is National Cervical Cancer Awareness Week, so we sat down with Dr. Murphy to ask her some common questions you may have about cervical cancer and screening.
Q: Why is cervical screening so important?
Dr. Murphy: Getting screened regularly is important because it can find abnormal cells that could become cancer. These are called pre-cancers. Finding pre-cancers and treating them can prevent you from getting cancer. Pre-cancers may take years to become cancer and will not cause symptoms. Screening is the only way to find pre-cancers.
Q: How is a cervical screening test done? Is it painful?
Dr. Murphy: A cervical screening test is not painful for most people. You may have some discomfort (like a bit of pressure). But getting a cervical screening test is important for your health and most people find that it is worth it, even if they find it a bit uncomfortable.
To do the test, a healthcare provider inserts something called a speculum into your vagina so they can see your cervix (the cervix is a part of the reproductive system; it is found at the bottom of the uterus, or womb, which is where babies grow). The healthcare provider then uses a swab to take some cells from your cervix, which are sent to the lab to be examined.
Q: Do I still need to be screened if I have had sex with only one partner?
Dr. Murphy: Even if you have had sex with only one partner, you still need to be screened. This includes intercourse (sex) and digital (using the fingers) or oral (using the mouth) sexual activity involving the genitals with a partner of any sex.
Q: The current cervical screening test in Ontario is the Pap test, but I have heard about another test for cervical screening, HPV. What is the difference between a Pap test and an HPV test?
Dr. Murphy: Having an HPV (or human papillomavirus) test is exactly the same experience as having a Pap test. The only difference is what happens to the sample once it reaches the lab. A Pap test examines cervical cells for any abnormalities, but an HPV test is used to test cervical cells for an HPV infection.
Cancer Care Ontario (in time, Ontario Health) is working with the Ministry of Health to develop a plan to switch from Pap testing to HPV testing as the recommended test for the Ontario Cervical Screening Program.
Q: What is the link between HPV and cervical cancer?
Dr. Murphy: HPV is a virus that is passed from one person to another through sexual contact. There are many types of HPV infections, and most go away without causing any harm. But some types of HPV, if they don’t go away, can cause cervical cancer.
Q: Does the HPV vaccine prevent cervical cancer? If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to be screened?
Dr. Murphy: The HPV vaccine can help prevent cervical cancer, but you still need to be screened even if you’ve been vaccinated. The vaccine does not protect you against all types of HPV or HPV infections you had before getting vaccinated.
Q: How do I get an appointment to be screened?
Dr. Murphy: Make an appointment with your doctor or nurse practitioner to talk about cervical screening. If you do not have a doctor or nurse practitioner, you can register for Health Care Connect at 1-800-445-1822 or visit the Health Care Connect webpage. You can also get screened at some public health units, sexual health clinics or walk-in-clinics.
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