Cancer Care Ontario is teaming with the Canadian Cancer Society to address some of the misunderstandings that surround cervical cancer and Pap tests.

According to a survey conducted by CCO, 75 per cent of respondents didn't know what a Pap test was for, and 50 per cent didn't know that cervical cancer was preventable. 

"Many women have certainly heard of Pap tests," said Paula Carere, nurse practitioner and director of the Waterloo Region Nurse Practitioner-Led Clinic, but "they often don't understand the details and what the procedure involves and what we are looking for."

'We have the knowledge, so we need to take the initiative ourselves to look after our own health.' - Linda Wu, cancer survivor

Dr. Joan Murphy, clinical lead of Ontario Cervical Screening Program at Cancer Care Ontario said it's not a lack of information, but a lack of understanding that causes the confusion.

Many women believe a pap test detects sexually-transmitted infections, vaginal cancer and ovarian cancer, when it actually checks for cell abnormalities caused by the human papillomavirus.  

Raising awareness

To increase understanding both of cervical cancer and Pap tests, CCO and CCS have launched a new campaign under the title It's Always Better to Catch Things Early. The campaign will educate women about the importance of getting screened and urge women to make time for an appointment.

"The Canadian Cancer Society is a very powerful voice, it's a trusted voice," said Murphy. "We see them as a strong partner to help get the message out and having it trusted."

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Both cancer organizations also stress that cervical cancers can be prevented by receiving an HPV vaccine. (CBC)

Almost 640 women in Ontario were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2015 according to CCO. Despite the high prevalence, 500,000 women between the ages of 35 and 49 have never had a Pap test, or are overdue for screening.

"You don't know until it's too late," said Linda Wu, a cervical cancer survivor who now encourages other women to get tested.

'If cancer is found at a later stage, it can have a much bigger impact in cancer treatment.' - Susan Flynn, Canadian Cancer Society

Wu says cervical cancer and Pap tests weren't popular topics for conversation when she was diagnosed in 1988. Even today, she said women who are working and taking care of their families often don't have time to make the necessary appointments.  

"We are learning more and more," she said. "We have the knowledge, so we need to take the initiative ourselves to look after our own health."

Importance of early detection

If cell abnormalities are detected early, cervical cancer can be easily treated according to Susan Flynn, senior manager of cancer prevention at the Canadian Cancer Society.

"Some of those treatments can involve a laparoscopy, sort of a laser surgery that will remove those cells," Flynn said.

"If cancer is found at a later stage, it can have a much bigger impact in cancer treatment."

Flynn also stresses that cervical cancer can be prevented by using condoms during sexual activity and by receiving an HPV vaccine, which is offered to girls in Grade 8.