“A three minute test can change the balance of your life.”
What started with a simple two month check-up for her infant son ended in a drastic change to the course of Kelsey Ramsden’s life. During the appointment she was informed by her doctor that she was overdue for her regular Pap test. “She wanted to do it right then and there,” Kelsey remembers. But staying to do the test was an inconvenient disruption to her already busy schedule and like many busy moms, she didn’t think she had the time. “I told her I was too busy and that I would re-book.” Her doctor was insistent and despite Kelsey’s reluctance, she agreed to stay and complete the test. Two days later the phone rang – she had cervical cancer.
October 16 to 20 is National Cervical Cancer Awareness Week, and the South West Regional Cancer Program, in partnership with Cancer Care Ontario, is encouraging women to get screened for cervical cancer by staying up-to-date on their regular Pap tests. It is estimated that in 2017, about 710 women in Ontario will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and about 150 women will die from the disease.
The Ontario Cervical Screening Program (OCSP) recommends that women between the ages of 21 and 69 should get screened for cervical cancer every three years if they are or have ever been sexually active. Screening is the best way to find the early cell changes that might lead to cervical cancer without exhibiting any symptoms. From 2013 to 2015, only 62.5% of women in the South West have been screened for cervical cancer in the recommended time frame.
“Most cervical cancers are found in women who have never been screened or have been screened less often than recommended by Ontario’s cervical screening guidelines. This is why screening is so important,” says Dr. Robert Di Cecco, Regional Cervical Lead for the South West Regional Cancer Program. “We see screening participation start to decline after age 50 even though the risk of cervical cancer remains, so women should continue to get screened until at least age 69.”
Cervical cancer can affect anyone with a cervix who has ever been sexually active. It is recommended that women ages 21 to 69 have regular Pap tests, even if they:
- Feel healthy and have no symptoms;
- Are no longer sexually active;
- Have only had one partner;
- Are in a same-sex relationship;
- Have been through menopause;
- Have no family history of cervical cancer; and/or
- Have received the HPV vaccine.
HPV infections are common, and up to 80 percent of sexually active men and women will have an HPV infection in their lifetime. HPV is passed from one person to another through intimate (i.e., skin to skin) sexual contact. While there are many types of the virus, only specific strains of HPV put a woman at risk for cervical cancer. HPV infections can result in an abnormal Pap test and infections commonly go away without causing any harm, but when an infection persists it can lead to cervical cancer, even among women in their 50s and 60s. Regular screening every three years can detect abnormal cells that can be treated and prevent cancer from developing.
Today, nearly seven years after her diagnosis, Kelsey is cancer-free and advocates for busy women to stay up-to-date on their Pap tests – even when it’s inconvenient. “I’ve recognized that something as quick as a three minute test can change the balance of your life.” she says. “I don’t leave things undone or conversations unsaid. I would say my life is so much richer because of my cancer experience and fortunately I’m here to live that out.”
Women ages 21 to 69 are encouraged to speak with their healthcare providers about getting screened for cervical cancer. Visit Cancer Care Ontario’s website or the Federation of Medical Women of Canada to find a Pap test clinic in your community. To learn more about HPV immunization in Ontario visit: http://www.health.gov.on.ca/en/ms/hpv/.