In 2017, the Australian national guidelines for cervical cancer screening changed. Women and anyone with a cervix are now advised to get a Cervical Screen Test (CST) every five years starting at the age of 25, rather than a Pap Smear every two years.
However, these guidelines are not the same for women living with HIV (WLHIV), including women who may be immunocompromised.
Evidence shows that people living with HIV (PLHIV) are at greater risk for developing certain cancers. In particular, WLHIV are three times more likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer. Therefore, WLHIV are advised to get a CST every three years to monitor their risk more frequently.
So, how is this new Cervical Screen different from a Pap Smear?
While the actual procedure is the same, a pap smear detects abnormal cells that may or may not lead to cancer if left untreated, whereas the new CST tests for human papillomavirus (HPV), and estimated to protect up to 30% more women from developing cervical cancer. HPV is a very common virus, passed from skin to skin contact during close intimate or sexual activity. It’s important to test for certain strains of HPV because some strains are directly linked to cervical, anal, vaginal, vulvar, or some mouth and throat cancers. Knowing which strains of HPV you have is the best indicator of your risk for developing HPV-related cancers. And knowing your cancer risk is the best way to prevent it, detect it early, or stop it in its tracks.
Even if you’re at greater risk for HPV-related cancers, there are steps you can take to stay healthy. Start planning a CST even if you haven’t noticed any changes or symptoms. It’s important to get a screen even if you have been vaccinated against HPV; HPV vaccinations only protect you from some strains of HPV. There are multiple treatment options for cervical cancer, so detecting HPV and cervical cancer early is the best way of ensuring you can live a cancer-free life. Consult with your doctor on the best way to manage your individual risk.
While we may worry that the CST will be awkward, uncomfortable, or embarrassing, getting this important health check is well worth it to be in-the-know and fully informed about your risk. Some women may prefer to see their trusted GP or HIV specialist to get a CST, while some may prefer the anonymity of seeing a doctor they don’t already know at a Family Planning NSW clinic or NSW Sexual Health clinic. The choice of where to go to get a CST is yours; you can ask for a screen at any health centre or clinic that’s convenient for you, and anything you discuss with a doctor or nurse will always be kept confidential. Just like the Pap Smear, it will take up to three weeks for the results of your CST to be sent to you or your doctor, which will inform the next steps you should take.
As women, we should encourage each other to take control of our health and navigate health systems that can sometimes leave us feeling unheard, not taken seriously, and disempowered. It’s unfortunate that women living with HIV, and those who may be immunocompromised, are often left out of the conversation about screening for cervical, anal, and other HPV-related cancers. However, when we take control of our health, our health outcomes are improved due to our ability to make informed decisions and to take action. Being informed is being empowered.
If you want to speak to a woman about getting a CST, call Positive Life on (02) 9206 2177, 1800 245 677 (freecall) or email firstname.lastname@example.org