Why should we prevent cervical cancer? Because we can
Cervical cancer strikes women in the prime of their lives. The median age for diagnosis is 49 – when people are likely to be active in work and family life – but the virus that causes the disease may have been present for decades before cancer was detected.
One in 100 women in Europe will develop cervical cancer in their lifetime. In addition to anxiety and pain, the disease can severe reproductive health issues and, in some cases, premature death.
14 types of human papillomaviruses are known to cause the disease. HPV 16 and HPV 18 are the highest risk types, accounting for more than 70% of cases.
HPV is a very common virus, transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. There’s no shame in carrying the virus – most people have it at some point in their lives. In fact, close to 80% of all sexually active adults will get HPV.
The good news is that the virus often clears on its own. You may have had HPV and not even known. However, a persistent infection with high-risk HPV can lead to pre-cancer or cancer. Testing for these viruses can tell whether you're at risk before a problem develops.
How can we stop cervical cancer?
With proper screening, vaccination and treatment, cervical cancer is highly preventable. HPV vaccines prevent the most common forms of the virus. Over time, this should reduce the overall burden of the disease. However, screening remains a vital part of the picture for the foreseeable future.
Today, there are two main screening tests for cervical cancer: Pap tests (sometimes known as smear tests) and HPV DNA tests.
Pap tests have been used for nearly 80 years to look for abnormal changes in cells. These abnormal cells – sometimes referred to as ‘pre-cancer’ cells – can develop into tumours. After a health professional has collected a sample from the cervix, a laboratory scientist uses a microscope to look for abnormalities. Pap tests do not detect the presence of HPV and is subject to human error.
HPV DNA tests, on the other hand, use modern technology to detect DNA of high-risk HPV to identify a woman’s risk of pre-cancer or cancer. A sample is taken from the cervix and then a highly-accurate laboratory instrument tests for the DNA of the cancer-causing viruses.
Positive tests: an opportunity for prevention
Pap and HPV tests can be performed together or consecutively. If the results are ‘positive’ – showing the presence of abnormal cells or HPV – it does not mean you have cancer.
Abnormal cells found on the cervix through a pap smear could be minor or more serious. If HPV is present, it means that a high-risk infection is present and pre-cancer or cancer may develop. Follow-up tests, possibly including a biopsy, may be requested by the doctor.
If a pap test comes back negative, it suggests a lower risk of having cancer or pre-cancer at that moment in time. However, up to one in three cases of invasive cervical cancer occur in women with normal pap results.
A negative HPV DNA tests is a more reassuring outcome. It implies a much lower risk of pre-cancer/cancer now – and a lower chance of developing cancer in the next 5-10 years.
Pap tests have served women well for decades and – if you are called for a routine cervical screening check-up, it is advisable to attend. However, HPV DNA tests are a more accurate and modern approach to identifying women at risk of cervical cancer now or in the future.
A Call for Action
With all the available technology nowadays, it is supposed that more and more people stay healthy. However, the lack of awareness and access to these technologies make it more difficult for patients to be diagnosed early. We urge decision-makers to ensure that the latest technologies get to as many medical centres in Europe as possible so that we can save lives and money.