Australia’s new cervical screening program is good news for all of us with a cervix. A more sophisticated test means that the early signs of cervical cancer can be picked up one step earlier, helping to further improve early detection.
But we know that many Australians still have questions about the program – and what it means for them.
So, here are nine key things you need to know:
1. The test is different, but the procedure will feel the same
While the new program includes a new more sophisticated test that is replacing the old Pap test, when you go to the doctor, the process will feel the same. The difference in the new testing occurs in the laboratory, where scientists will check for the presence of the human papillomavirus, which causes virtually all cervical cancer cases. You can find out more about what to expect at your first test here.
2. Even if you are vaccinated, you will still need a test
Even if you have been vaccinated against HPV, it’s still important to get tested. That’s because there are other types of HPV-related cervical cancer that aren’t covered by vaccination.
3. You don’t have to screen until the age of 25
Under 25? Then you don’t need to start cervical screening just yet. Research has shown us that cervical screening doesn’t help lower the rate of cervical cancer cases and deaths in women under 25. But it can lead to unnecessary treatment and investigation that can cause complications for you down the track.
Another reason you can wait until 25 is because Australia now has a world-leading HPV vaccination program. You probably received the vaccination in school when you were 12 or 13 years old. Even if you didn’t, you’ll get some protection from the vaccination program, because so many young people are vaccinated that it’s helping prevent the spread of the virus.
If you are under 25 and have had an abnormal Pap test in the past, you should talk to your doctor about what tailored follow-up is best for you.
And of course, like anyone else, if you have any abnormal symptoms (see below), it’s important to see your doctor without delay.
4. You still need your first HPV test two years after your last Pap test
If you are aged 25 – 74, it’s important that your next cervical screening test is done on time.
One of the great features of the new cervical screening program is that the new HPV test only needs to be done once every five years. But you still need your first HPV test (the new test) two years after your last Pap test (the old type of test). Once you have had your initial HPV test, if it’s negative you can then move to only getting checked less often.
Not sure when you last Pap test was? Speak to your doctor or call the National Cancer Screening Registry on 1800 627 701 to make sure you are up-to-date.
5. You still need to get any symptoms checked straight away
If you do have symptoms, such as pain, abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, don’t wait until your next test. Go see your doctor as soon as possible.
Cervical screening is designed to pick up any changes in the cervix before symptoms appear.
Jana Pittman talks to Mia Freedman about the symptoms women need to look out for when it comes to gynecological cancer.
6. Anyone with a cervix should take part
It’s important to remember that this program is designed for anyone with a cervix aged between 25 – 74, regardless of your cultural identity, any disabilities, gender identity, sexuality, or sexual history. You can find tailored information for people from different backgrounds and in different situations here.
7. There are options available for women who are well overdue for screening
Safe and inclusive cervical screening is available for everyone with a cervix.
There are new options available for some women who are overdue for screening. These include self-collection – meaning you can privately collect your own sample for HPV testing at a clinic. If you know you have never been tested, or it has been a really long time, then speak to your doctor to see if this might be suitable for you. Currently there is one Australian laboratory that can test self-collected samples but other labs are working towards becoming accredited.
8. Having HPV doesn’t mean your partner has been cheating
The results of the new test will not tell you if your partner has been cheating, and it is necessary to be tested if you haven’t had sex since your last test.
This is because you can have HPV for a long time without ever knowing it. HPV can stay in the body for 10-20 years. Finding out you have HPV doesn't mean you or your partner has been unfaithful. This is a test to check for the early signs of cancer.
9. It’s expected to save lives
Since Australia’s Pap test screening program was introduced in 1991, the rate of cervical cancer cases and deaths has halved. With the introduction of a new, more sophisticated test, we expect these numbers to drop by a further 20 percent.
But this can only happen if those who are eligible get the test. So, share this article with your loved ones, friends and family, and keep up to date with your cervical screening.
If you have more questions, you can call Cancer Council on 13 11 20 or visit cervicalscreening.org.au