Cervical Cancer Screenings: HPV, Pap Tests, And More

Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women, presenting as a significant global health challenge. Importantly, cervical cancer is considered to be a preventable cancer, which highlights the importance of cervical cancer screenings. In this blog post, we take a close look at the causes of cervical cancer, its relation to the Human papillomavirus (HPV), and at cervical cancer screening such as Pap tests.
Sabrina Greco

Sabrina Greco

MSc in Anatomical Sciences at Queen’s University in Canada

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What is Cervical Cancer?

Yearly, over half a million women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, with over 300,000 deaths occurring on the international scale [1].The goal of cervical cancer screening is to detect and identify cells of the cervix which have undergone dysplasia. Dysplastic cells, or cells that have undergone dysplasia, may also be called “abnormal” or “precancerous” cells. In the past century, advancements in the understanding of cervical cancer have allowed for developments in the screening of precancerous conditions. Due to improvements in regular cervical cancer screening programs and Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations, the rates of new cervical cancer cases and deaths have decreased since the 1980s [2]. Cervical cancer is now considered a preventable cancer. 

The Cervix

Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix, the lower-most portion of the uterus. The cervix is anatomically divided into an upper endocervix and a lower ectocervix. The endocervix continues to the uterus, and the ectocervix opens into the vagina.

The transformation zone is located where the endo and ectocervix meet. Most cervical cancers form in the transformation zone, as cells within this region undergo continuous transformation and turnover [3]. This means that cells in the transformation zone gradually change, and if these changes are continually abnormal, they could turn into precancerous cells. 

Cells of the transformation zone can be sampled or biopsied to screen for precancerous conditions, as is done during the Papanicolaou test (Pap test) [4]. Healthcare providers use several terms to describe the cellular changes detected during cervical cancer screenings. These terms include cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN), squamous intraepithelial lesion (SIL), and dysplasia. You might also hear these abnormal changes called pre-cancers or pre-cancer changes.

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HPV and Cervical Cancer

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of related viruses primarily transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact. There are over 200 strains of HPV, and almost 80% of sexually active individuals will be infected with a form of HPV at some point in their life [5]. Your immune system will fight off most HPV infections. If the infection clears, it becomes undetectable in 12–24 months. Many people will not experience symptoms and will not know they have it. In 10-20% of women, these infections remain persistent, and the infected cells can progress to precancer and cancer [6].

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of related viruses primarily transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact. There are over 200 strains of HPV, and almost 80% of sexually active individuals will be infected with a form of HPV at some point in their life [5]. Your immune system will fight off most HPV infections. If the infection clears, it becomes undetectable in 12–24 months. Many people will not experience symptoms and will not know they have it. In 10-20% of women, these infections remain persistent, and the infected cells can progress to precancer and cancer [6].

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Sabrina Greco

Sabrina Greco

Sabrina is a pre-medical student based in Toronto, Canada. She completed her BSc in Life Sciences and her MSc in Anatomical Sciences at Queen’s University in Canada. Her recent research focused on investigating the symptoms and experiences of women who have undergone gynecologic surgery. Her research has been published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology Canada, and presented at the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health Annual Conference 2022 and 2023. Sabrina is a patient advocate dedicated to improving communication and knowledge translation practices in clinical settings.