Please note that information in this section is intended as educational information only, and is geared towards sexually active individuals with a vagina. Please see the resources section for links to additional information, and sources of medical advice.
Cervical cancer is a cancer of the cervix. The cervix is a cylinder shaped area connecting the vagina and the uterus.
Different types of infections can be passed through various contact types such as:
Cervical cancer generally develops over a long period of time, and is caused by persistent (won’t go away) infections with high risk strains of HPV. With early detection, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable cancers and a person's chances of surviving is very good.
Four women a day will develop cervical cancer
One woman a day will die of cervical cancer
One in three women do not screen regulatory for cervical cancer
In Canada, there are still 1,500 people who are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year, and 400 of those people will die. Screening is very important to preventing cervical cancer, but about one in three Canadians who should be screening don’t screen regularly.
When screening for cervical cancer, there are two different tests are often used.
The commonly known test is called cytology, which is also known as the Pap test. During a pap test, a healthcare professional collects cells from inside of the cervix which are observed under a microscope by a Cytologist. The Cytologist will determine if the cells look abnormal, which could indicate cervical pre-cancer or cancer.
In an HPV test, a sample is collected from inside the vagina close to the cervix. The sample is processed for high risk HPV DNA on a molecular diagnostic machine. If HPV DNA virus is present, then an infection is confirmed. Because cervical cancer is caused by high risk strains of HPV, if there is no HPV infection, that person is very unlikely to develop cervical cancer in the near future. It is recommended for people only over the age of 30 to take an HPV test as HPV is very common in younger people, but usually goes away on its own. It is more common that people over 30 years of age who test positive have a persistent HPV infection and therefore at potential risk for pre-cancer or cancer.
The HPV and cytology tests are often used in combination to prevent cervical cancer. If a cytologist is not sure whether cervical cells are abnormal, they may use an HPV test to confirm if the virus is present.
If an HPV test is positive, a Pap test is recommended to check if any cellular changes have occurred.
Having a positive HPV or cytology test does not mean the person has pre-cancer or cancer. But it does mean there is potential risk, which should be monitored.
For information on your provinces/territories screening guidelines, click here.
There are certain risk factors that have been identified that may increase someone’s risk for developing cervical cancer. Infection with HPV is the most important risk factor.
Known risk factors include:
Most cases of cervical cancer occur in people younger than 50 years of age, and may affect people of African ancestry more often than Caucasian people. People of certain religions also tend to have lower rates of cervical cancer, but likely due to having fewer sexual partners, which can lower their exposure to HPV.
Earlier stage symptoms of cervical cancer may include:
Later stage symptoms may include:
You should see a doctor if you begin to experience these symptoms, even if your HPV test came back negative. Even if these symptoms are not present, screening on a regular basis is a good idea.
At the pre-cancer stage, cervical cells can develop abnormal changes. These abnormal cells do not always develop into cervical cancer (sometimes they change back to normal on their own), but they have a higher risk than normal cells of doing so.
Precancerous changes in the cervix are quite common, and it usually takes many years for a pre-cancer to develop into cancer. Most people who are treated for cervical pre-cancer will not develop cancer. Treatment for pre-cancer usually involves removing abnormal cells from the cervix.
When abnormal cells progress to cervical cancer, doctors may grade the cancer according to how severe it is. The type of treatment offered may differ according to the grade (or severity) of the cancer. Treatment could include surgery, chemoraditation, or radiation. The lower the grade of cervical cancer, the higher the patient’s chances of surviving is (prognosis).
Because of the long development time between pre-cancer and cancer, and a very good prognosis with treatment at the early stages of cervical cancer, this disease is very preventable. But screening is critical to ensuring prevention and early treatment if necessary.