All women between the ages of 21 and 65 who have had a sexual relationship should be screened for cervical cancer. Along with the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, screening is the best method of preventing cervical cancer.
The aim of cervical cancer screening is to detect cancer at an early stage so that the chances of successful treatment are better. Screening helps to find abnormalities called “precancerous lesions”. Detecting lesions early allows for them to be monitored and, in some cases, treated before they develop into cancer.
Cervical cytology, or “Pap test”, is the standard screening test for cervical cancer. It is performed by a doctor, nurse, specialized nurse practitioner or midwife. If necessary, the healthcare professional will then prescribe one or more additional examinations.
The healthcare professional also examines genital organs when performing a Pap test or additional examinations.
Pap test (Cytology)
Pap test is a procedure that takes a few minutes and involves taking cells from the opening of the cervix in order to verify if they are normal.
The healthcare professional first inserts a speculum into the woman’s vagina. A speculum is a medical instrument that holds the vagina open. This allows the healthcare professional to see the cervix, which is located at the end of the vaginal canal, and reach it in order to take cell samples. The healthcare professional uses a tiny brush or wooden spatula to rub the surface of the cervix lightly. The cell samples are then sent to a lab for analysis.
Once the results are in, the healthcare professional proceeds with the appropriate follow-up.
Recommended screening frequency
Women between the ages of 21 and 65 should have a Pap test every 2 to 3 years. Healthcare professionals advise women over 65 to continue or stop screening based on their individual cases and the results of their last tests.
The development of precancerous lesions of the cervix into cancer is slow. Getting a Pap test every 2 to 3 years allows for effective screening and prevents unnecessary examinations.
Getting a Pap test
To get a Pap test, ask your healthcare professional. Some CLSCs, Family Medicine Groups (GMF) and walk-in clinics also provide this service. You can contact these resources to check if you can go there for a Pap test. You can find their contact information in the Finding a resource section.
Once the results of a Pap test have been reviewed, the healthcare professional may require more information. In such an event, he or she may ask you to have another Pap test or prescribe additional examinations. These include:
An HPV test
The choice of examination depends on Pap test results and your particular case.
An HPV test aims to detect certain types of HPV on the cervix that may lead to the development of a cancer.
This test may be prescribed by a healthcare professional when the results of a Pap test are inconclusive.
Procedure for an HPV test
The healthcare professional takes cell samples, similar to what is done for a Pap test, from the cervix. He or she deposits the collected samples in a liquid and sends them to a lab for analysis.
The healthcare professional will then recommend the appropriate follow-up based on the results of the test.
A colposcopy involves examining the cervix under magnification in order to detect lesions. This test takes about 10 minutes. The doctor uses a colposcope, which is an instrument that magnifies the cervix. In some health facilities, the colposcope is connected to a screen and you can watch the procedure being performed.
Procedure for a colposcopy
The physician uses a speculum to hold the vagina open. He or she then applies substances to the cervix to help detect lesions with the colposcope.
A biopsy is performed when the doctor needs further details of the lesions detected.
A biopsy involves sampling a small part (3 to 5 millimetres) of the area where lesions appear. The sample is then analyzed in a lab to check if it contains precancerous or cancerous cells.
The biopsy results are sent to the doctor, who will then recommend the appropriate follow-up.