Cervical cancer testing and prevention
Learn how to protect yourself from cervical cancer by getting a regular Pap test and seeing if the HPV vaccine is right for you.
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About cervical cancer
Cervical cancer starts in the cells of the cervix. It occurs when abnormal cells grow in a way that can invade or spread to other parts of the body.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer. HPV infections cause cell changes in the cervix that may turn into cancer before you feel any symptoms.
HPV infections are:
- common and usually have no signs or symptoms
- experienced by up to 80 per cent of sexually active men and women in their lifetime — but most of these infections cause no significant harm
Cervical cancer is almost entirely preventable with the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, regular testing with the Pap test, and appropriate and timely follow-up of abnormal results. There is no cost for Pap tests as they are covered by OHIP.
A Pap test looks for cells that have changed on the cervix. These may turn into cancer before you feel any symptoms. Cells are taken from the surface of the cervix and sent to a lab to be looked at under a microscope.
Getting regular Pap tests can catch early changes in cervical cells when they may be easier to treat and when treatment can prevent cervical cancer from developing.
Since the 1980s, the rate of women in Ontario getting or dying from cervical cancer has gone down because they are getting regular Pap tests.
When to get tested
A Pap test is recommended every three years for:
- women 21 years old and older who are or have been sexually active
- transgender men who have a cervix, who are 21 years old and older, and who are or have been sexually active
Women 70 years old and older can stop having Pap tests if they have had three or more normal Pap test results in the past 10 years.
Women who have had a hysterectomy (an operation to remove all or part of the uterus) should talk to their doctor or nurse practitioner to see if they need to continue getting Pap tests.
You should still get a Pap test to check for cells that could lead to cervical cancer if you:
- feel healthy and have no symptoms
- are no longer sexually active
- have only had one sexual partner
- are in a same-sex relationship
- have been through menopause
- have no family history of cervical cancer
- have received the HPV vaccine
How to get tested
It’s easy to get tested. Book an appointment with your doctor or nurse practitioner. If you are due for a routine check, they will do a Pap test for you.
Some public health units, sexual health clinics and community health centres also provide Pap tests. Call a location near you to see if they offer Pap tests.
How to prepare
Try to book your Pap test on a day when you do not have your period.
For 48 hours before the test, do not have sex or use tampons, creams or medicines in your vagina — but still go for your test if this can’t be avoided.
After your Pap test
Your doctor or nurse practitioner should contact you about your results, but you may need to follow up. Speak with your health care provider ahead of time to determine how they will communicate your results.
You may also receive letters from Cancer Care Ontario to:
- remind you to follow up with your doctor or nurse practitioner about a recent test
- invite you to start cervical testing
- remind you when your next test is due
Most often, your Pap test results will be normal. If your results are not normal, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have cervical cancer.
If you have abnormal Pap test results, it’s important to connect with your doctor or nurse practitioner to discuss next steps. You may need to take a repeat Pap test in a few months or see a specialist for more tests.
If you do not want to receive letters from Cancer Care Ontario, call
Tips to reduce your risk
Getting the HPV vaccine before becoming sexually active helps protect against cervical cancer. The vaccine may also protect against future HPV infections if you are already sexually active.
Ontario students in Grade 7 can get the vaccine for free through a school-based HPV vaccination program.
The HPV vaccine is available outside of the school program for a cost. Some private health plans cover the cost of the vaccine.
Talk to your doctor or nurse practitioner to see if the HPV vaccine is right for you.