Ladies, it’s that time of year again. The Federation of Medical Women of Canada has embarked on its second annual Pap Test Campaign in support of Cervical Cancer Awareness Week, which takes place from Oct. 26 to 30. The national campaign allows women without a family doctor or gynecologist to drop-in or book an appointment for a Pap test at participating clinics across Canada, including U of T Health Services.
Pap tests are a crucial step in protecting against cervical cancer. Every year in Canada, 1,300 to 1,500 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and almost 400 women die of the disease. “Cervical cancer is a preventable cancer,” says fourth-year U of T medical student and FMWC Toronto student co-rep Grace Yeung. “If you pick it up early enough it takes probably five to 10 years before you actually develop the cancer or cancerous lesions.”
Doctors recommend women have regular Pap tests within three years of becoming sexually active or after age 21. The test involves removing cells from inside and around the cervix, which are then examined to detect cell abnormalities in the cervix before cancer can develop. The test also detects infections caused by HPV, which can also lead to cervical cancer. Other risk factors include smoking, HIV or Chlamydia infection, hormonal contraception, and family history.
Despite the Pap test’s effectiveness in preventing cervical cancer, many women don’t get tested regularly. According to third-year U of T medical student and Yeung’s co-rep, Kathryn Isaac, “There’s a problem with accessibility. Some women may want to have a Pap smear but may not have access to a family physician on a yearly basis. So they either don’t have that reminder or don’t have the appointment to go and see them. And next there may the lack of knowledge, so a lot of women—although we assume that Pap smears are well-known—may not know how important they are in preventing cervical cancer.”
“What’s unique for the student population is that they’re not from here: their family doctors are somewhere else,” says Yeung. “We’re generally healthy, and [cervical cancer] is not a disease you can see on the outside. The fact that you’re healthy, you might not see the need to get screened. That’s one reluctance or barrier to having people coming it to get screened.”
Now in its second year, the Pap Test Campaign aims to reach more women and improve access to screening. “Last year was more of a pilot project—it was kind of run small,” says Yeung. “Five hundred people participated. This year we’ve increased the number of clinics that are participating. One of the interesting places that we have recruited is Iqaluit, Nunavut. Within Toronto and the GTA area, we have about 12 clinics.”
Another addition to this year’s campaign is a learning experience for all those budding gynecologists. According to Isaac, “we’re also going to be having [first- and second-year medical] students go out to the clinics, so they can gain some exposure, learn from the patients, and the patients can learn from them. The role is teaching.”
The campaign also helps to raise awareness about women’s health issues, and reminds women to get screened regularly. “It’s for all women,” says Isaac. “From the young, sexually-active 16-year-old, all the way up to the 50-year-old mother that doesn’t take the time to go to her family doctor unless there’s a problem. It’s difficult to reach all those individuals, but hopefully having the Pap smear campaign during Cervical Cancer Awareness Week will help get the word out there.”
For a list of participating clinics and information about booking an appointment, visit fmwc.ca.