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10 Myths about Cervical Cancer

Laura Peppas

It’s labeled the “silent killer,” killing nearly 150 Australian women and affecting nearly another 700 every year.

Yet cervical cancer is still a largely preventable disease and there are still many misconceptions out there about it. With the help of ACT Health, we decipher ten of the most common myths.

1. The cause of cervical cancer is unknown.

We know that the vast majority of cervical cancers are caused by exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus. Other factors can also be the cause.

2. The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine fully protects me from cervical cancer.

This is a common misunderstanding amongst women, according to Dr Clare Holberton of Sexual Health and Family Planning ACT in Civic. In fact, the HPV vaccine only protects women from 80 per cent of cervical cancers. Even then, you can still get cervical cancer without having HPV infection. That’s why regular screening tests (Pap tests) are essential—even if you have received the HPV vaccine.

3. I’ve only had one sexual partner, or I haven’t had sex for a long time so I don’t need Pap tests.

Any woman with a cervix that has ever had any sexual activity— no matter how many times— is at risk of cervical cancer. “Even if you had sex a long time ago, the virus can still stay in the system so you should still continue your Pap tests,” says Dr Holberton.

4. Cervical cancer only happens to older women.

Cervical cancer doesn’t discriminate by age—women of all ages who have had sex are at risk of developing the disease.

5. If I have an abnormal Pap test it means I have cancer.

Don’t panic—this can simply mean that your test picked up some abnormalities that your doctor will need to confirm with a follow-up. “Many women are anxious when they get a call but the vast majority are precautionary follow-ups that need to be addressed,” says Dr Holberton.

6. If I have cervical cancer or abnormalities, I will have symptoms.

There are usually no symptoms in the early stages of cervical cancer. “Even if there are symptoms, it’s often symptoms people wouldn’t normally pay much attention to,” says Dr Holberton. That’s why a Pap test every two years is so important.

7. Women who have sex with women are safe from cervical cancer and don’t need to have Pap tests.

Anyone who has ever had sex may have HPV and HPV can be transmitted between women, so regular cervical screening is recommended.

8. I only need to have a Pap test every five years.

You should have your Pap test every two years—and as soon as it’s due—so that abnormal cells can be detected and if appropriate, treated. In Australia, 80 per cent of women with cervical cancer have either never had a Pap test or not had them regularly. The Australian Government Department of Health is making some changes to the National Cervical Screening program in 2017 by introducing a new type of test and the frequency that women need a test. Until then, you should still follow the two yearly Pap test routine.

9. Cervical cancer is very rare and I won’t get it.

Worldwide, cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer affecting women and the seventh most common cancer overall. In Australia, Pap tests save lives. The tests have already halved the deaths caused by cervical cancer. By having two yearly Pap tests, women help to substantially reduce the risk of cervical cancer. Early detection of cervical cancer dramatically improves the likelihood of successful treatment.

10. My personal details will be in the public domain if my details are entered into the ACT Cervical Screening Register.

“We assure all our patients that the Register is private,” says Dr Holberton. “There are two things about the Register that are really great—one is it sends out a reminder letter to women when they are due for their Pap test, the other is the Register will follow up doctors if they have missed an abnormality.”

For more information on cervical screening (Pap tests), visit the ACT Cervical Screening Program website at health.act.gov.au/cervicalscreening or phone 13 15 56. 

Want to share your story?

We are preparing some more articles on cervical screening for the ACT Cervical Screening Program. If you want to share your story with our readers, contact [email protected] 

This is a sponsored post. For more information on our sponsored post policy, click here.

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Laura Peppas

Laura Peppas is HerCanberra's senior journalist and communications manager and is the Editor of Unveiled, HerCanberra's wedding magazine. She is enjoying uncovering all that Canberra has to offer, meeting some intriguing locals and working with a pretty awesome bunch of women. Laura has lived in Canberra for most of her life and when she's not writing fervently she enjoys pursuing her passion for travel, reading, online shopping and chai tea. More about the Author

  • Eliz52

    It’s concerning that women continue to get orders to screen or a screening “story” rather than a respectful offer of screening with full information on the risks and “actual” benefits of screening.
    Informed consent is a must for all cancer screening according to the law and proper ethical standards, for men AND for women.

    I made an informed decision not to screen many years ago, that meant doing my own research. I decided the risks with screening were too high for me, I was content with my near zero risk of cervix cancer (0.65% is the lifetime risk of cervical cancer) rather than the 77% lifetime risk of colposcopy/biopsy under our program. I now understand that HPV- women cannot benefit from pap testing. (that’s most of us, about 95% of women aged 30 to 60)

    It’s been known for a long time now that we seriously over-screen women, we screen too early, too often and for too long. Over-screening provides no additional benefit to women but greatly increases the risk of a false positive, excess colposcopy/biopsy or potentially harmful over-treatment.

    I think more women are getting to the evidence and are making informed decisions to screen later, less often or not at all, some are using HPV self-testing devices. The fact is if you’re HPV- then you can’t benefit from pap testing, MOST women aged 30 to 60 are HPV- (about 95% of us)
    So that’s a lot of women having unnecessary pap testing that simply exposes them to the risk of false positives, excess biopsies and over-treatment. (and it’s a higher risk here with our over-screening program)

    The Dutch have the best program in the world (in my opinion) for those who want to test: they offer 5 HPV tests or HPV self-testing at ages 30,35,40,50 and 60 and a 5 yearly pap test is only offered to the roughly 5% who test HPV+
    This will save more lives and takes most women out of pap testing and harms way and it will see referral rates for biopsies and “treatments” plummet. (although the Dutch referral rates are a lot lower than our rates anyway)
    The Dutch and Finns have offered 7 pap tests, 5 yearly from 30 to 60 for many years, the Finnish program started in the 1960s. Aussie women are still being urged to have 2 yearly pap testing from 18 (some are even younger) until age 70 so an incredible 26 (or more) pap tests!

    This is serious over-screening that simply exposes women to increased risk. It’s been known for many years that we have high and mostly avoidable over-treatment and excess biopsy rates, but we’ve persisted with this program. It’s concerning to note we “treat” more than 10 times the number of women than a country like Finland. (many of them young women)

    Our new program set to start next year also sides with excess, this does not benefit women. (and it wastes scarce health resources)
    The new program is likely to be 5 yearly HPV tests from age 25 to 72/74 (about 10 or 11 tests)
    You only have to do basic research to find HPV testing before 30 is NOT recommended, also, 5 tests in total is enough. Also, some women might choose to test only once, those HPV- and no longer sexually active or confidently monogamous.
    Also, HPV self-testing will be locked away here until women have declined the invasive HPV test for 6 years. Barriers should not be placed in front of self-testing options, the speculum exam is disliked by some women and can be intolerable for some, especially post-menopausal women.
    Thankfully, women can now buy HPV self-testing devices online or through their Aussie GP. The Dutch invented, Delphi Screener, is reliable and is now offered in quite a few countries, including Australia. If you want to self-test, stand firm, our GPs get target payments for pap testing.

    It’s time these programs and the medical profession were pulled into line, others do not have the right to make screening decisions for women and accept risk on our behalf.
    Screening is a choice, nothing more, women are entitled to impartial and complete information and have a say in what happens to their body. ALL screening carries risk, only one person can say the risk with screening is worth it, individual women.
    I don’t accept screening orders or screening stories or one-sided promotions of screening, I choose to make informed decisions about screening, my absolute right.
    I’ve declined breast screening as well, the Nordic Cochrane Institute has an excellent summary of the evidence on their website. It should be a scandal that Breast Screen is permitted to use celebrity endorsement to sell screening to women. Over-diagnosis and over-treatment is a serious risk, do they really think I’m going to screen because Jo Hall thinks it’s a good idea? (no offence to Jo Hall)

  • Eliz52

    “Worldwide, cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer affecting women and the seventh most common cancer overall”

    BUT it’s always been a fairly rare cancer in the developed world and it was in natural decline before testing even started, sure, a small number of women are helped by testing but there was never a need to harm and worry so many women to help a few.

    ” Even then, you can still get cervical cancer without having HPV infection”

    The evidence suggests almost all cc is linked to infection with hrHPV. There is some doubt about the VERY rare types of cc like neuroendocrine cervical cancer, but pap testing usually misses this type of cc anyway. The pap test was designed to detect/prevent the more common type of cc, squamous cell carcinoma. (but still fairly rare)

    Pap testing often misses adenocarcinoma of the cervix too, when a young woman get cc, it’s usually this type of cc and if the woman has been screened, she may well have produced a false negative pap test.
    That’s why countries that follow the evidence don’t test women under 30 – screening doesn’t prevent these rare cancers and can actually disadvantage women by exposing them to false positives, excess biopsies/over-treatment or produce a false negative result that may falsely reassure and lead to a delay in seeing a doctor for persistent and unusual symptoms.

    Conveniently phrasing things to promote pap testing is unacceptable, women are entitled to the evidence, good and bad, not a screening story. It’s concerning that the AMA and others also use the “story” approach – it seems women are still viewed very differently to men.
    My husband received a 2 page summary of the pros and cons of prostate screening while women still get misinformation, celebrity endorsement, cherry-picked information, spin, scary stories, one-sided promotion of screening or a bald order to screen and a scolding if they choose not to screen. We hear that some women “avoid” screening, how can you avoid something the law says is elective, our choice?
    We talk about gender equality and the abuse of women, yet we permit these programs to treat women in this unacceptable way.