Women’s bodies can undergo drastic changes, what with monthly hormonal fluctuations and the arduous process of childbirth that triggers radical transformations to accommodate a living, growing child in the body. Women are conditioned to endure these changes with a smile, and because of that they tend to ignore their own sexual and menstrual health, a problem that can have life-altering consequences.
To bring this into perspective, India contributes to more than a quarter of global cancer mortality rates in women. Of that, the largest contributor is cervical cancer which is a largely preventable disease if the underlying causes are known, or if its caught early which requires regular screening.
Here is all you need to know about cervical cancer and how to prevent it:
What is a cervical smear test?
As the name suggests, cervical cancer is the cancer of the cervix, which is the lower and narrow opening of the uterus. A cervical smear detects abnormalities that might put a woman at risk by testing for the presence of precancerous or cancerous cells in the cervix. Cervical cancer is caused by HPV (Human Papillomavirus), a sexually transmitted virus. Studies suggest that there are more than 200 different kinds of HPV, most of which don’t remain in the body and are therefore not a major threat. However, if results indicate a high-risk HPV type, it is better to get yourself checked more frequently because it is a clear indicator that you might develop cancer in future.
Who should get tested?
Doctors across the world suggest that women between the age group of 20-70 years and those who are sexually active, should regularly get themselves tested for this virus, as an early detection can stop the growth of the cancer cells and prevent a full-blown cancer. If gone undetected, the cancer can metastasize and spread to other parts of the body, at which point it can become fatal. Women who have undergone hysterectomy or those who do not have a cervix, are not at risk of developing cervical cancer. On the other hand, women who are HIV positive or have a weak immune system might need to get tested more frequently. Here’s a small table to break down the frequency of tests:
No test required
Every 3 years
Pap test and HPV test together every three years, individual tests can be done every 5 years
65 and older
Talk to your health provider about whether or not you are at risk anymore
What happens in a cervical smear test?
A cervical smear test essentially consists of two tests; one is a Pap test that looks for precancerous cells, which are cells that could develop into cancerous cells, while the other is the HPV test which looks for the virus that causes cervical cancer. Both tests are done at the same time unless there is a specific need for only one test in particular. During the test, the walls of the cervix are scraped to collect the sample using a swab or a spatula. It is a completely painless process and only takes a few minutes. The sample is then sent to the laboratory for further investigations. After the test, mild discomfort or vaginal bleeding is normal. However, contact your doctor if the pain or bleeding persists even after two days.
Why should you get a cervical smear test?
It is said that prevention is better than cure. It is for this reason that any woman who is more than 20 years old or is sexually active should get the cervical smear test. The main purpose of a smear test is to detect the possibility of developing cancer cells. In case high-risk HPV cells are detected in your result, you can save yourself from developing further complications. Since HPV is sexually transmitted, it becomes all the more pertinent for all sexually active women to get tested once every three years. The procedure is fairly simple, mostly painless, and highly recommended. Discuss it with your gynaecologist, think about your options, and get yourself tested.
(Edited by Varsha Roysam)