Don’t delay – protect yourself against cervical cancer

Did you know that cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers – but only half (52.6 per cent) of Queensland women aged 25-74 years participate in cervical screening.

This is despite Queensland having one of the highest cervical cancer incidence rates in Australia, with around 190 people diagnosed with cervical cancer across the state every year.

Research shows that over 70 per cent of cervical cancers occur in women who have not been screened as often as recommended or who have never participated in screening.

Completing a Cervical Screening Test every five years is an important measure for women to look after themselves and maintain good health.

The Cervical Screening Test, which replaces the previous two-yearly Pap Smear test, detects human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a virus which can cause cell changes that may progress to cervical cancer if left untreated.

Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital gynaecologist Dr Amy Arnold said cervical cancer commonly develops slowly over many years.

“Around four out of five people will get HPV at some point in their lifetime”, Dr Arnold said.

“Most of the time, your body clears the infection naturally, but sometimes HPV remains in the body and over many years can cause cell changes that result in cancer.

“The Cervical Screening Test detects HPV and it also looks for early changes in the cells of the cervix if HPV is detected. These cell changes can be monitored and treated, if needed, before they have the chance to develop into cancer.

“Prevention and early detection are key for cervical cancer – and could save your life,” she said.

Recent qualitative research undertaken for Queensland Health showed many women were not aware they should get a Cervical Screening Test, with a number of myths associated with the test.

“Many women do not realise they are eligible for the test. Anyone with a cervix who has ever been sexually active and is aged between 25 and 74 should be getting a Cervical Screening Test every five years, regardless of if they have been vaccinated or not,” Dr Arnold said.

Myth #1: I’ve had the HPV vaccine so I don’t need to get Cervical Screening Tests.

FACT: The HPV vaccine protects against HPV strains that cause 90 per cent of cervical cancers. While the HPV vaccine targets the most common HPV types that cause cervical cancer, it does not prevent all HPV types. Since some cervical cancers will not be prevented by the vaccine, it’s important to get screened every five years to increase your protection.

Myth #2: Cervical cancer is not preventable.

FACT: Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer. Because cervical cancer can take up to 10-15 years to develop, the early detection of HPV and cell changes means it may be possible to prevent HPV ever developing into cervical cancer. Over 70 per cent of cervical cancers occur in women who have not been screened as often as recommended or who have never participated in screening.

Myth #3: Cervical screening will result in a cervical cancer diagnosis.

FACT: Cervical screening is a prevention method and looks for an HPV infection in the cells of your cervix. If HPV is found, it doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer. Depending on the results of your tests, you might have a repeat Cervical Screening Test in 12 months to see if the HPV infection has cleared, or you might have a follow-up procedure called a colposcopy.

Myth #4: Cervical cancer is symptomatic, and you should only get screened if you have symptoms.

FACT: HPV infection is usually asymptomatic – the only way to know if you have HPV is to have a Cervical Screening Test. Cervical cancer is also often asymptomatic, particularly in the early stages.

Myth #5: I can only get screened at my GP.

FACT: You may feel uncomfortable seeing your regular doctor for a Cervical Screening Test. There are options to screen in non-GP settings, such as women’s health clinics or other health services. Some women aged 30 or older who are overdue for screening or have never had a Cervical Screening Test may be eligible to do a self-collected sample. A self-collected sample is just as accurate as the health care professional collected sample. Talk to your health care provider to find out if you are eligible.

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