Mass screening helps immigrant women detect early signs of cervical cancer

Many immigrant women have never had a cervical cancer screening, simply because they’d never heard of it before. A new program is trying to change that.
A clinic in Windsor is screening women for cervical cancer. They are focusing on those who have never or rarely get their testing done. 1:52

Many immigrant women have never had a cervical cancer screening, simply because they'd never heard of it before. But a new program is trying to change that.

About 40 women received pap screenings at the YMCA in Windsor, Ont. Tuesday. Many had never been screened before or hadn't been screened in five years.

"Before I came to Canada, it wasn't an issue we talked about in family clinics or brought up at events like this at the YMCA," said Amenah Al Mukadm, speaking in Arabic through an interpreter.

She came to Canada from Syria about one year ago and first heard about Tuesday's program from Dr. Elise Milrod, who conducted the screenings.

Some women unaware of care

Al Mukadm said she'd never heard of cervical cancer before. Now that she's had her screening, she plans to get it done every three years. 

"The goal of this clinic is to capture patients that are at risk because they don't necessarily have access to care," Milrod said in an interview with CBC News.

"It's not that they have a high risk of cervical cancer, it's that they have a high risk for not getting screened," she said.

A pap screen allows doctors to detect changes to cells in the cervix before they become cancerous. It's a relatively easy procedure that could potentially save lives, Milrod said.

It's recommended women aged 21 - 70 get a pap screening every three years. 

"It's an important screening, it's simple. It can be done at any doctor's office," Milrod said. "It's an important and simple screening that all women should be getting."

The Erie St. Clair Regional Cancer Program sponsored the screenings, which are part of the larger "Papalooza" screening initiative. More than 100 women got pap screens through the program this year.

New immigrant women often show low rates of screening for cervical cancer, said Priyanka Philip, a cancer prevention co-ordinator with the Erie St. Clair cancer program.

"It's just not a comfortable conversation," Philip said. "[Immigrant women] don't often talk about their cervical screening or their mammogram. Cancer in general is a topic they're uncomfortable talking about."  

She said the two most common barriers are language and culture. Women often don't get screened because the discussion isn't introduced by a family doctor, or they don't feel anything is wrong.  

"A lot of times we hear people say, 'I feel perfectly fine, why would I need to get it done?'" Philip said. "The message we want to send to people is cancer screening is meant for people who don't have any symptoms, who feel perfectly normal."


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