Cervical cancer can be diagnosed early through regular screening. If you are sexually active, these tests should be performed every 3 years until the age of 30, and subsequently every 5 years if tests are normal.
Pap smear screening
The Pap smear test is a method of cervical screening used to detect potentially pre-cancerous and cancerous cells in the cervix. It can be performed by a gynaecologist, and usually takes only a few minutes. During a Pap smear, the doctor will use an instrument known as a speculum to hold the walls of the vagina open so that the doctor can see the cervix clearly. A soft brush or spatula is then used to collect sample cells of your cervix. These cells will then be sent to a laboratory to test for cancerous or pre-cancerous properties. You should avoid having sexual intercourse for 24 hours before the test, and you should not have the test performed when you are menstruating.
An HPV test detects the presence of HPV and helps to identify the type of HPV. This is important as some HPV strains are more likely to cause cervical cancer. It may be performed at the same time as a Pap smear, or it may be recommended if your Pap smear shows presence of abnormal cells.
This procedure stains the cells in the cervix with a dye, which are then viewed through a microscope and magnified to check for abnormal cells. This procedure is done if the HPV test or the PAP test is abnormal.
These screening methods aim to detect precancer of the cervix – known as cervical intraepithelial neoplasia. If detected as a precancer, treatment is usually via a day surgical procedure and does not affect the patient’s fertility, as it involves removing only the diseased part of the cervix.
However, if there are symptoms, then it is more likely to be an abnormal growth rather than a precancerous condition. For diagnosis, you will need to see a gynaecologist for assessment for any obvious growth on the cervix which may need to be biopsied.
If there is indeed an early cancer proven on biopsy, then further testing is needed to determine the stage for treatment. This can include examination under anaesthesia, scopes and scans.
The stages of cervical cancer are:
The cancer is still small and has yet to spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
The cancer has grown larger and may have spread beyond the uterus and cervix, or to the lymph nodes.
The cancer has spread to the lower part of the vagina or the pelvis. It may have grown large enough to block the ureters (the tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder).
The cancer may have spread further, beyond the pelvis and to organs such as the lungs, bone or liver.