Screening for Cervical Cancer Could Save Your Life.

I received a letter from the Province of Ontario the other day. I wasn’t expecting anything from the government, my license and health card are current. I was curious as I ripped open the envelope and pulled out the letter inside.

Oh yeah, I thought to myself, my pap test results. I had completely forgotten about them. Well, not really. There was an instance when I wondered when I’d be hearing from the doctor’s office, but no news is good news, I thought, and I put the worry out of my head. As it turned out it wasn’t the doctor’s office I was waiting to hear from, it was the Ontario Cervical Screening Program.

My doctor doesn’t do pap tests, and I’m ok with that. Personally, I like interacting with women during the procedure. It’s easier for me to engage with the care providers if they’re women. In my case it was a nurse who administered the test and another woman assisted her. I feel more comfortable being able to joke a little and find something common to talk about during a procedure that can be difficult for some women to go through. Anything to take the discomfort off and if there is anyone who knows how I feel, she does

Women make a face when we talk among each other about getting a pap test. It’s not the most comfortable test, and there are far more discomforting medical tests that we undergo (hello… mammogram, colonoscopy). But the element of discomfort is due to the highly private nature of the sample collection: cells gathered from the opening of the cervix, obtained from women lying prone with her feet in stirrups.

I’m pushing 60 and I’ve followed the screening guidelines religiously throughout my life. I’ve lost count of the number of pap tests I’ve had. And, like all the ones prior, this one came back clean. I don’t have to have another test again for 3 years. When I hit 70, as long as these results keep coming in, I’ll have my last pap test and I won’t have to be screened any longer. The guidelines say 3 successive negative tests in 10 years, so I’m crossing my fingers.

My first pap test was done by a male doctor and with a cold speculum. I’m sure someone at sometime suggested adding a bit of warmth to the cold steel before insertion but I’ve never been the recipient of such consideration. Designed by James Marion Sims in the 1840s, the only change over the years has been to make them out of plastic instead of steel. And, as Arielle Pardes, writing in Wired Magazine notes, with the advances in technology, the speculum is past due for a design overhaul. This would have significant implications for women: Pardes cites research findings that show women avoid going to the gynecologist because of the fear of the device itself.

It was years and years ago when a colleague of mine was diagnosed with cervical cancer. We were in our early 30s and didn’t think of cancer as a threat, yet. Her cancer was caught via a pap test. She went through successful treatment and has been cancer free now for over 20 years. I think of her whenever I feel squeamish or discomforted by the thought of another pap test. If she hadn’t caught it in time.... My imagination goes to a life without her smiling face, her children left without a mother. She wouldn’t know the joys of being a grandmother.

Cervical cancer is preventable. It is spread via HPV infection. We now have a vaccine that is available to young boys and girls before they start out on the road of sexual activity. But it’s important to note that there is no upper age limit on the HPV vaccine, and if you’re sexually active, you could be at risk for HPV infection and 6 types of cancers connected with HPV. And it’s important to note that screening is still needed even if you’ve been immunized.

It’s really important for women who haven’t been tested to get tested. According to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 50% of cancers develop in women who were never screened, or who let screening lapse.

Testing in Canada is free. The Federation of Medical Women of Canada can help you find a pap clinic near you. Ask your friends, plan a group visit. Take your daughter, couple it with a spa day or special time together. Take your mother, buy her lunch. It doesn’t have to be unpleasant. And remember, we’re all in this together!

October 16-20, 2017 is Cervical Cancer Awareness Week. If it’s been 3 years, or longer, since your last test, book your test today. It’ll only take a few minutes, but it could save your life.