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Do you really need that Pap test?

When was the last time you or one of your girlfriends brought up a recent Pap test in conversation? Probably never, right? While it’s not always the most comfortable subject to broach with friends, it’s one that’s important to discuss.

Cervical cancer is the third most common cancer for women in Ontario aged 20-44. A Pap test can find cell changes in the cervix that could lead to cervical cancer. Testing is covered by Ontario’s provincial health plan. And yet over 1 million women in Ontario are overdue for a screening.

Think you’re not at risk? Don’t believe the common misconceptions. Despite what you may have heard, regular screening is still necessary, even for women who are no longer sexually active, have only one partner, are in a same-sex relationship, have been through menopause, or have no history of cervical cancer in their family. The Ontario Cervical Screening Program recommends that women who are or have been sexually active should be tested every three years beginning at the age of 21 until at least age 69.

Whether you’ve yet to go for your first test or have been getting regularly screened for years, there can still be some confusion about what the Pap test actually does. The screen for cervical cancer is the Papanicolaou test, or as you know it, the Pap. Your doctor or nurse practitioner will gently take a few cells from your cervix and send these to a laboratory to be examined under a microscope.

At the lab, when abnormal cells are identified in the Pap test, early treatment can take place before the cells turn cancerous. Abnormal cells will not cause any symptoms and are not visible to your doctor or nurse practitioner at the time they are doing the test, so regular screening is important even if you feel well.

Screening can be performed by a doctor or nurse practitioner, as well as at some local public health units and community health centres. And the best part? Cervical cancer is almost 100% preventable with regular Pap tests and appropriate follow up.

To help you stay on top of when to schedule your Pap, the Ontario Cervical Screening Program sends letters to Ontario women who should have the test, reminding them when it’s time for their screening and advising on next steps based on the test results.

So, in short, if you are a woman between ages 21-69 who is or has ever been sexually active, you should have regular Pap tests every three years. While cervical cancer continues to impact Ontario women; regular screening can reduce your risk.

Cervical cancer can be prevented. Take charge of your health—talk to your doctor about cervical screening. And the next time you’re catching up with your girlfriends? Bring it up!

In collaboration with Cancer Care Ontario

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