11/11/2013 03:32 EST

Cervical Cancer: 10 Facts About Prevention And Pap Tests


It may sound obvious, but if you notice anything abnormal in and around your vagina, health experts recommend getting it checked out right away. But sometimes, symptoms can be invisible and you may not notice or feel anything at all.

Types of human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause cervix cancer are often called silent infections — there are no obvious symptoms or signs. In Canada, 1 in 150 women are expected to develop cervical cancer during their lifetimes, and 1 in 423 will die from it, according to Statistics Canada.

Pap tests are performed to not only catch these symptoms under a microscope, but also to find the causes of other abnormalities like vaginal bleeding or pelvic pain. The procedure removes a small sample of cells from the cervix and usually lasts just a few minutes. A medical instrument called a speculum is gently placed inside the vagina to widen it, and a small stick is used to scrape the lower part of the cervix. And while it may feel slightly uncomfortable, Pap tests should be painless. Some women may experience slight bleeding for one to two days after.

As awkward and scary as the idea of a Pap test sounds, health experts say it's better to get diagnosed early. But what if you're not sexually active or already had the test as a teen, do you still need it? To help us answer some of the most common asked questions about Pap tests and cervical cancer, the Canadian Cancer Society has flushed out 10 popular FAQs, and shed light on some things you may not have considered:

10 Cervical Cancer Facts

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Check Your Body

You know your body best. If you notice any unusual changes like abnormal bleeding from your vagina, pain in your pelvis or lower back, or pain during sexual intercourse, don't ignore it. Make some time to talk to your doctor.

Make Healthy Lifestyle Choices

Eat a balanced diet and try not to smoke. Smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke have both been linked to cervical cancer. If you smoke, reducing your risk of cervical cancer is yet another reason to quit.

When Should You Have A Pap Test?

You should have a Pap test within three years of becoming sexually active, or by the age of 21. If you are currently not sexually active or have not been sexually active in years, experts suggest still getting the test.

Pap Tests Should Happen 1-3 Years

You should have a Pap test performed every one to three years depending on previous results. If you have trouble remembering, there are a number of calender apps you can sign up for.

Take The Test At The Right Time

Doctors recommend you have the Pap test in the middle part of your menstrual cycle — that means between 10 to 20 days after the first day of your period.

Don't Do It Before The Test

Don’t have sexual intercourse 24 hours before the test, as this can affect your results.

What About Hysterectomies?

If you've had a hysterectomy (surgical removal of the uterus), you may still need a Pap test. Talk to your doctor for more information.

Practice Safe Sex...All The Time

The biggest risk factor for developing cervical cancer is an infection of the cervix with human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus. HPV infections are quite common and most go away on their own, but some don’t. These are the infections that can lead to cancer if they aren't caught by Pap tests and treated early.

Get The Vaccine

Get vaccinated against HPV. The HPV vaccine can help reduce the risk of cervical cancer, as well as vulvar, vaginal and anal cancer.

Know Your Medical History

Know your medical history as well as your family history, especially if anyone in your family has had cancer. However, cancer can affect anyone at any stage of life, so give yourself the best chance for survival by getting it diagnosed early.