Globally, cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer among women. However, early screening and primary prevention can help decrease the burden on healthcare and mortality rates. The thought of cervical cancer is particularly alarming for women since it is one of the major causes behind all cancer-related deaths among women. According to WHO, “cervical cancer is caused by sexually acquired infection with Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Most people are infected with HPV shortly after the onset of sexual activity”.
However, if detected early, most cervical cancer cases can be managed well. During the initial stages, there are no signs to tell a woman that she may be at risk. There are many tests used for diagnosing cervical cancer. Some such tests are:
Cervical Smear Test
The PAP smear test is the most common test to detect early cell changes leading to cervical cancer. It involves collecting a sample of cells from the cervix.
By looking at the smear, experts can confirm whether the cervix is normal, healthy, or abnormal. The presence of abnormal cells suggests that cancer may develop in the future.
How is it done?
The smear test is a simple outpatient procedure where the gynaecologist scrapes some of the cells from the cervix (the neck of the uterus) and smears it on a glass slide for examination.
After the test
- It takes 3-4 days to get the results from the lab. If the smear test is standard (as it is in most cases), it should be repeated after three years.
- If the test discloses some “abnormalities,” this usually means that some changes have occurred in the cells, which, if left untreated, could develop into cancer after many years. Remember, most women who have had an abnormal smear test are successfully treated.
- Once treatment starts, it will be necessary to repeat the test after some months. If the subsequent smear tests are regular, then the tests should be done every three years.
- If the subsequent smear tests are not regular and continue to show some abnormalities, it will be necessary to investigate further.
A Colposcopy examination is an outpatient procedure, just like a smear test. It is an in-depth examination of the cervix through a special microscope called a colposcope. A colposcope acts like a magnifying glass with light, allowing the doctor to look closely at the cervix.
How is it done?
Colposcopy is usually indicated when the routine cervical screening test, i.e., Pap smear test, has picked up abnormal cells from the cervix.
A solution is applied to the cervix, which will cause the affected areas to turn white. The cervix is then viewed through the colposcope, placed just outside the vagina. If there are any abnormal areas on the cervix, a tiny tissue sample is taken (biopsy) and sent to the lab for further testing.
After the test
Some tissues are taken from the cervix; you may experience mild cramping or light bleeding for a few days, which can be relieved by any anti-inflammatory medication. It is advisable to abstain from sexual intercourse for a few days after a biopsy.
When to get the test done?
- Women between the ages of 20 – 60 should do the test every three years.
- Women who have excess / recurrent attacks of vaginal discharge or bleeding after sexual intercourse.
- It should be done within ten days of the onset of periods.