Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women aged 20-44 years old.

The risk of cancer of the cervix increases with age, so it is important that women of all ages who have ever had sex (intercourse), have regular cervical cancer screening.

Cervical cancer is largely preventable with Human Papillomavirus (HPV) immunization, regular screening, and appropriate and timely follow up of abnormal results.

By taking steps to reduce your risk, and following screening guidelines, cervical cancer can be avoided or treated more easily in many cases.

What is Cervical Cancer?

The cervix is the lower part of the uterus leading into the vagina. Sometimes cervix cells change. Cervical cancer is an abnormality of the cells lining the illustration of the cervixsurface of the cervix.

Before cervical cancer develops, the cells of the cervix start to change and become abnormal.

These abnormal cells are precancerous, meaning that they are not cancer. These abnormal cells sometimes change back to normal on their own.

Precancerous changes to the cervix are called dysplasia of the cervix (or cervical dysplasia).

Dysplasia of the cervix is not cancer. It is a common precancerous change of the cells that if left untreated, can develop into cancer of the cervix. It is important to know that most women with dysplasia do not develop cervical cancer. Pap tests can show unhealthy changes in cervical cells that can be treated before they become cancer.

What are the Risk Factors?

There is no single cause of cervical cancer, but some factors can increase the risk of developing it. The main risk factor for developing cervical cancer is infection of the cervix with Human Papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV is a group of more than 100 types of viruses. Some types of the HPV virus can be passed easily from person to person through sexual contact. HPV infections are common and usually go away without treatment because the immune system gets rid of the virus. However, certain types of HPV can cause changes to cells in the cervix that may lead to cervical cancer.

Other factors that increase the risk of developing cervical cancer are:

  • Not having regular Pap tests
  • Sexual activity now or in the past
  • Becoming sexually active at a young age
  • Having many sexual partners or a sexual partner who has had many partners
  • Smoking
  • Having a weakened immune system  
  • Giving birth to many children

What is a Pap Test?

Cervical cancer screening involves having a Pap test. A Pap test is a simple procedure taking only a few minutes to do and it's done in a healthcare provider's office. Some women may find it uncomfortable or embarrassing, but remember it could save your life.

To do a Pap test, you will be asked to lie on your back on an examining table. An instrument, called a speculum, will be gently inserted in your vagina so your cervix can be seen clearly. Some cells will be taken from the cervix and sent to a laboratory to be examined.

The cells on the cervix are constantly being replaced with new cells. Sometimes, these cells can become abnormal. A Pap test looks for these abnormal cells. Often these abnormal cells will return to normal on their own, but if they don't, they need to be found and if necessary, treated. If these cells are not found and treated, they may slowly over a number of years become cervical cancer.

Having regular Pap tests is important to identify cervical cancer before symptoms occur and to start treatment early when it is likely to be more effective.

How often should I be tested?

The following are the recommendations from the Ontario Cervical Screening Program for when you should start cervical screening and how often you should be screened:

  • Cervical cancer screening is recommended for all women starting at age 21 who are or have ever been sexually active
  • Sexual activity includes intercourse, as well as digital (use of fingers) or oral sexual activity involving the genital area with a partner of either gender
  • Women who are not sexually active by 21 years of age should delay cervical cancer screening until they become sexually active
  • Regardless of sexual history, there is no evidence to support screening women under 21 years of age
  • Cervical cancer screening should be done every three years
  • Screening can stop at age 70 in women who have had three or more normal tests in the prior ten years

New Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines for Ontario Women
- View a short video on the importance of Pap tests

Cervical Cancer resources

Visit the Ontario Cervical Screening Program website to download the following available resources.

  • Find out when it's the right time for you to start screening
  • What your abnormal Pap test means
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and Cancer of the Cervix

Cancer Care Ontario:

Cancer Care Ontario - Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines    
Canadian Cancer Society - Cancer Information

Ministry of Health and Long Term Care:

Ministry of Health and Long Term Care - Cervical Cancer Screening Public Information

Public Health Agency of Canada:

Public Health Agency of Canada - Cervical Cancer