Pap Smears, HPV and Your Cervical Health
By Dr. Alaina Gair, ND
Canadian Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines
In 2013 the Canadian Task Force for Preventive Health Care changed the cervical screening guidelines and causing confusion for women across the country. We have changed from a system where women began annual Pap tests between 18-20 years old to beginning at 25 and only testing every 3 years. The financial burden this screening was placing on our health care system seems to be at the root of the recommendation, paired with unnecessary stress, testing and treatment for young women.
Research has also provided clarity on demographics for development of cervical cancer. According to the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer – “37% of women diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma and 30% of women diagnosed with non-squamous cell carcinoma had their last Pap test more than five years before their diagnosis, or had no record of a Pap test at all”. Getting your Pap test as recommended every 3 years is important for early identification of cervical changes that increase risk for developing cervical cancer. Don’t skip it! Even if you have had the same partner for years, sexual activity is only one risk factor – there are other factors to be aware of like giving birth many times, having a weak immune system or having been exposed to Diethylstilbestrol in utero that can increase your chances of developing cervical cancer.
These guidelines do not mean you can’t have annual Pap testing if you wish. Although your family doctor may not provide more frequent testing – there are naturopathic doctors who have a special interest in women’s health who can provide the test and make recommendations for treatment. There are even kits you can purchase to do the test from the comfort of your own home!
Having HPV DOES NOT mean you have or will have cervical cancer.
Human papilloma virus (HPV) comes in many strains and so the number resources explaining this can be overwhelming. Not all strains have been shown to increase risk for cancer – but over ¼ of them have. Many people who have contracted HPV do not know they have it and a strong immune system can clear the virus naturally within two years, regardless of the strain. When the immune system can’t clear the infection, it lingers and over time can cause normal healthy cells to turn into abnormal cells (what is picked up in a Pap test) and then cancer.
Abnormal cells in the cervix may be described in different ways using different terms.
Atypical squamous cells means your Pap results are borderline, between normal and abnormal.
Low grade squamous intraepithelial lesion (LSIL) are mildly abnormal cell changes that are not precancerous but they aren’t normal either – usually your doctor will recommend a follow up Pap in 6 months in this case.
High-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion (HSIL) means that the cell changes on your cervix are more concerning. There are abnormal, or precancerous cells present. This still doesn’t mean you have cancer – but the cells may develop into cancer if they aren’t treated.
If your Pap test picks up HSIL, you may be referred for a test called a colposcopy. This test allows for a closer inspection of the cervix under a microscope and biopsy of the abnormal cells. This testing allows for a more specific assessment and diagnosis of the cellular changes showing up in the cervix.
Naturopathic Doctors work to correct nutritional deficiencies and boost the immune system, enabling it to respond to the HPV virus. For women who have contracted HPV – there is additional increased risk for developing cervical cancer if they are also smokers or have been using the birth control pill long term. Long term use of oral contraceptives can cause folate deficiency, which has been shown to increase risk for cancer. The Institute for Research on Cancer found that women who have the HPV virus and have used oral contraceptives for five years are nearly four times as likely to develop cervical cancer. You can prevent or reverse this deficiency by taking a B complex supplement that contains folic acid or by changing birth control methods.
If you would like to learn more about how to maintain a healthy cervix, how naturopathic medicine can help if you have HPV or about the at home Pap kits, Book An Appointment Now to meet with me!
“Abnormal Pap Smears And HPV.” Women to Women. Source
“Did Your Doctor Tell You That You Had An Abnormal Pap Smear?” Papillex.
“New cervical cancer screening guidelines” Canadian Partnership Against Cancer. Source.