By: Shreya Gandhi, Chair, Research Information Outreach Team
Many of us may have heard the phrase, “If you are over the age of 21 and have a cervix, GET A PAP TEST!” But what exactly is a Pap test? And why do healthcare professionals place so much emphasis on encouraging those around them to get tested regularly?
Well, a Pap test, scientifically known as the Papanicolaou test, is a cervical screening procedure used to detect potentially cancerous processes within the cervical cavity.
The cervix, or the lowest part of the uterus, is a 1-inch long, fibromuscular passageway that bridges the uterus to the vagina. There are two portions of the cervix known as the ectocervix – which projects into the vagina – and the endocervix – which opens up into the uterus. The ectocervix and endocervix are separated by a transformation zone: a region of the cervix with the highest frequency of cervical cancer occurrences.
A cross-section of the female reproductive system with cervix labeled. Created with BioRender.
But don’t be fooled! The cervix is not just a passageway; it also produces a mucosal layer that protects the uterus from bacteria. Additionally, the cervix maintains varying mucosal consistencies throughout a biologically-female’s menstrual cycle to enable the monthly shedding of the endometrial layer.
What happens when a patient has cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer can cause vaginal bleeding, abnormal discharge, and/or vaginal pain during intercourse; symptoms which are quite vague when put into context of other cervical abnormalities that could occur. Luckily, administration of a pap test is a relatively inexpensive and simple procedure where cells are collected from the cervix to detect any abnormalities. Although the process can be painful for some, the process helps detect precancerous lesions within the transformation zone and can help early detection in the stages of development. So it’s worth it!
What contributes to the development of cervical cancer? Exposure to various strains of the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) can survive in the body for many years and compromise an individual’s immune system. HPV can contribute to the transformation process that converts the body’s cervical cells to cancerous cells. In 2019, approximately 1,350 Canadians were diagnosed with cervical cancer. I know that this number can seem scary at first glance, but there are various ways that we, as a community, can mitigate the effects of such a diagnosis.
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month in Canada. Awareness ribbon created courtesy of BioRender.
The first step? Get tested regularly. This means being tested every one to three years depending on the results of your most recent Pap test. AND getting a vaccine against HPV. You can always consult with a healthcare professional to learn more about the vaccine and address any concerns that you may have regarding its administration.
The second step is to know the risk factors for cervical cancer. The greater your number of sexual partners, and their sexual partners respectively, the greater your likelihood of acquiring HPV. Feel free to have an open discussion with your partner if this is something that concerns you. If you are sexually active from a young age, it is always better to use protection. Having unprotected intercourse from a young age can increase your risk of acquiring HPV, and other sexually transmitted infections.
Finally, stay informed! There are many great organizations and clinics across Canada, including the Canadian Cancer Society, that provide free support to families of survivors, patients, caregivers, and those that simply want to learn more. For more information, visit https://cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-types/cervical.
Happy Cervical Cancer Awareness Month! And don’t forget, “If you are over the age of 21, and have a cervix, GET A PAP TEST!”
If you enjoyed reading this article, be sure to visit the sites listed below for additional readings on the topic of cervical cancer and the importance of the Pap test.
Cervical Cancer: Symptoms and Causes
More on Cervical Cancer Awareness Month
Shreya completed her undergraduate degree in Neurosciences at the University of Western Ontario where she explored a novel surgical technique which, when used to remove glioblastoma tumours, showed prospects of prolonging overall patient survival. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Toronto, researching hypoxia and tumour microenvironment of glioblastomas under the supervision of Dr. Gelareh Zadeh – Princess Margaret Cancer Center. Shreya is the recipient of the prestigious Lieutenant Governor’s Award for her work with brain tumour education among youth.