SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- The Cervical Screening Test (which replaced the Pap test) is a quick and simple test that checks for the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a common virus that can cause changes to the cells of the cervix which may lead to cervical cancer.
- Having HPV or abnormal cell changes in the cervix does not mean you have cancer, but if left undetected and untreated may lead to cancer.
- Treatment for cervical cancer can include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these treatments.
- The National Cervical Screening Program recommends that all women and people with a cervix aged between 25 and 74 who have ever been sexually active should have a Cervical Screening Test every 5 years, even if they've had the HPV vaccine.
- The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine helps prevent the types of HPV that cause most of the HPV-related cancers and disease in people of all genders.
About cervical cancer
The cervix is the narrow part of the uterus which opens into the top of the vagina.
HPV can cause cervical cells to pass through a series of changes (dysplasia) which if left untreated can become cancerous. can test for most types of HPV known to be linked to cancer. If HPV is present, a practitioner collected test is able to detect most of these cellular changes. (If the test was self-collected, you may be asked to return to your health care provider for a further test to be able to look at the cells of the cervix.)
If HPV is not detected on the Cervical Screening Test and you have no symptoms such as abnormal bleeding, the risk of cervical cancer is extremely low and it is safe to repeat the test in 5 years.
In Australia, regular Cervical Screening Tests prevent about 1,200 people each year from being diagnosed with cervical cancer. Most people who develop cervical cancer have either never had a Cervical Screening Test (or Pap smear) or did not have them when recommended in the 10 years before diagnosis.
Even if you feel perfectly healthy, if you are a woman or person with a cervix aged between 25 and 74 years, you should have a Cervical Screening Test regularly every 5 years.
Function of the cervix
The cervix lies at the base of the uterus and opens into the vagina. Some of the functions of the cervix include:
- producing lubrication for the vagina
- producing mucous to help the movement of sperm
- holding the foetus in the uterus during pregnancy.
Symptoms of cervical cancer
Infection with HPV and most cervical cell changes have no symptoms. The only way to know your risk of developing cervical cancer is to have a Cervical Screening Test.
Sometimes abnormal bleeding, discharge or pain may be a sign of cervical cancer. If you have these symptoms, see your healthcare provider as soon as possible.
Types of cervical cancer
There are 2 main types of cervical cancer:
- Squamous cell cancer – this is the most common type of cervical cancer. It starts in the cells that cover the outer surface of the cervix at the top of the vagina. The Cervical Screening Test is a good way of assessing your risk of squamous cell cancer.
- Adenocarcinoma – this type of cervical cancer is less common. It starts in the glandular cells, which are found in the cervical canal. The majority of these are also caused by HPV.
Risk factors for cervical cancer
Cervical cancer almost always develops from cell changes caused by HPV. HPV is spread through genital skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity.
Other factors that can increase the risk of cervical cancer in people with HPV are:
Cervical cancer and HPV
In most cases, HPV clears naturally from the body within 1 to 2 years, and doesn't require treatment.
Sometimes, the virus persists in the cervical cells and causes cell damage. If these changes are left undetected and untreated, the risk of developing cervical cancer increases.
The Cervical Screening Test detects HPV and is expected to protect up to 30% more people from cervical cancer than the Pap test.
Cervical cancer and the Cervical Screening Test
Most cell changes to the cervix are not cancerous, but indicate common infections or conditions, which usually clear up naturally. Usually, cervical cancer grows slowly, but sometimes it can develop and spread quickly.
Cervical cancer is one of the cancers that can occur in young people.
Diagnosis of cervical cancer
Various tests are used to detect cervical cancer including:
- colposcopy – examines the vagina and cervix with a magnifying instrument to check for abnormalities
- – a small tissue sample is taken from the cervix during a colposcopy
- cone biopsy – a larger tissue sample is removed from the cervix under anaesthetic.
Treatment for cervical cancer
Some of the treatments for cervical cancer include:
- cone biopsy – if detected early, some cervical cancers can be removed during a biopsy
- hysterectomy – the removal of the uterus
- – the use of x-rays to destroy the cancer cells
- chemotherapy – the use of anti-cancer drugs that stop cancer cells from multiplying.
When a cure for cervical cancer isn't possible
If cervical cancer has been diagnosed in its later stages, the cancer may have spread to the point where a cure is no longer possible.
Treatment then focuses on improving quality of life by relieving the symptoms. This is called palliative treatment.
The HPV vaccine is most effective when given to adolescents before they become sexually active (before exposure to the virus). The recommended age is 12 to 13 years.
For most people, a single dose of HPV vaccine provides good protection from HPV infection, however people with significant immunocompromising conditions are recommended to receive three doses.
In Victoria, the HPV vaccine is available for free to all adolescents in year 7 of secondary school (aged 12 to 13 years). The vaccine is also available in GP and local council clinics and some pharmacies.
People (under 26 years) who missed the HPV vaccine at school can access free catch-up vaccination from a their GP, local council or in some pharmacies.
Where to get help
- – to book an appointment call SHV Melbourne CBD Clinic Tel. or call SHV Box Hill Clinic Tel. or (free call) Tel. These services are youth friendly
- Local community health centre or women's health nurse
- – helps people affected by cancer find the information, resources and support services they may need following a diagnosis of cancer