Detecting cervical cancer early with Pap smears does improve survival, Swedish researchers have found.

In a study published in Friday's issue of the British Medical Journal, researchers found the survival rate was 92 per cent among women with aggressive cervical cancer that was detected with the screening compared with 66 per cent for those who were diagnosed when they showed symptoms and the cancer was hard to treat.

The study followed 1,230 women in Sweden for an average of eight years after diagnosis.


In a Pap test, cells are scraped from the cervix, the gateway to the uterus, and are checked under a microscope. (Craig Lassig/College of American Pathologists/Associated Press)

Bengt Andrae of the Centre for Research and Development at Uppsala University and his co-authors found 273 cases of cervical cancer were detected with screening and 567 were found after symptoms developed.

"We have shown that cervical cancer screening not only reduces the risk for invasive cervical cancer but is also associated with improved relative survival and cure," the study's authors concluded.

For the purposes of the study, the researchers said a woman who was cured would have the same likelihood of dying as a woman of the same age without cancer.

Survival was also higher for women who went to a screening when invited compared with those who were overdue.


What's preventing you from having regular Pap tests? Have your say.

More than three-quarters of the 373 women who died from cervical cancer had not had a cervical smear in the recommended time frame. That finding suggests the recommended screening times are appropriate and that screening programs should focus on reaching women who haven’t attended screening to reduce cervical cancer cases and deaths even more, the researchers said.

Canadian health authorities recommend:

  • A Pap test starting at age 21 as part of a routine checkup or when a woman becomes sexually active, whichever comes first.
  • Re-screening every three years, to age 69, if the first two tests show no abnormality.
  • No regular screening for women over 69 with no cervical abnormalities for nine years and no history of cancer.

"You should talk to your doctor about your individual risk of cervical cancer and how often is appropriate for you to be screened," said CBC medical specialist Dr. Karl Kabasele.

"You can also get the HPV vaccine, which is a safe and effective way to prevent cervical cancer. But even if you get the shot, you should still get Pap tests on a regular basis."

In Canada, about 400 women die from cervical cancer each year and another 1,350 or so are diagnosed with it.

The study was funded by the Swedish Cancer Society, the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research and Uppsala University.