The easy test that can prevent most cervical cancers

By 2030, the World Health Organization wants to reach vaccination, screening and treatment targets that will help eliminate cervical cancer. Here’s what you need to know.

Cervical cancer has become almost entirely preventable, thanks to screening and vaccination.

In fact, the World Health Organization aims to eliminate the disease by 2030.

While rates of cervical cancer in Australia have significantly decreased since the National Cervical Screening Program began in 1991, the disease still claimed the lives of 229 women in 2019.

Around 913 women in Australia will be diagnosed with the disease this year.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer develops from abnormal cells growing in the lining of the cervix and can spread to tissue around the cervix, such as the vagina, or to other parts of the body.

It is almost always caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is spread through sexual contact.

How does screening prevent cervical cancer?

Australian Centre for the Prevention of Cervical Cancer executive director Professor Marion Saville says the good news is routine screening makes a difference.

“With breast and bowel cancer screening, the objective is to identify early cancers, which is important,” Prof Saville says.

“Cervical cancer screening can find pre-cancers and prevent cancer occurring.”

Regular cervical screening can prevent around 90 per cent of cervical cancers, according to Cancer Victoria.

National Cervical Screening Program recommends women aged 25-74 who have ever been sexually active, to have a cervical screening test every five years.

The cervical screening test looks for HPV and has replaced the Pap test, which was recommended every two years and looked for abnormal cells in the cervix.

Cancer Council Australia’s cancer screening and immunisations committee chair Professor Karen Canfell says the test is similar to the old one, with a speculum inserted into the vagina and a soft brush used to take a sample of cells from the cervix.

“The newer test is a much more sensitive test of whether a woman is at risk,” Prof Canfell says.

How the HPV vaccine helps prevent cervical cancer

HPV is a common virus, but some strains cause cervical cancer.

Nine strains of the virus are targeted by the HPV vaccine, which has been available for adolescents since 2007.

But the vaccine does not protect against all types which is why cervical screening is still important.

“There is a misunderstanding that if you’ve been vaccinated against HPV, you don’t need to screen for cervical cancer,” Prof Saville says.

“That’s not the case.”

Making cervical cancer screening more accessible

Some women avoid cervical screening because of embarrassment or cultural sensitivities.

But screening methods are developing all the time, and from 1 July, 2022, women will be able to collect their own sample using a vaginal swab.

It is inserted about 5cm into the vagina and rotated gently a few times.

The tests will be available at GP clinics where women will collect the sample and the clinic will then send it to a laboratory for testing.

The Australian Institute of Health & Welfare found more than 70 per cent of cervical cancers diagnosed between 2002 and 2012 were in women who had never been screened or whose screening had lapsed.

“We hope the new option for people to collect their own sample will see more people get screened,” Professor Canfell says.

“Screening stops cervical cancer in its tracks.”

National Cervical Cancer Awareness Week is November 8-14 and health experts are reminding women to book an appointment if they are due for screening.

Written by Sarah Marinos.