We have all heard about the link between smoking and lung cancer, but many women don’t know that smoking is a risk factor for abnormal Pap tests and cervical cancer. In Ontario, we recommend that every woman between the ages of 21 and 70 years, who has ever been sexually active, get screened for cervical cancer every three years. Regular cervical cancer screening is the best way to detect pre-cancerous changes early, before they become more serious.
Pap tests look for changes on the cervix that can lead to cervical cancer. These changes are called ‘cervical dysplasia’. An abnormal Pap test means you need to have follow-up with your doctor or nurse practitioner. Sometimes the Pap test just needs to be repeated in six months, and sometimes you may need to be referred to colposcopy where a doctor can take a better look at your cervix.
What causes cervical dysplasia?
Cervical dysplasia is caused by human papilloma virus or HPV. Most people are exposed to this virus when they become sexually active. For young women, the resulting infection often clears itself without any treatment. However, after the age of 30 it is harder for the infection to clear on its own. Women over the age of 30 with high-grade cervical dysplasia often need treatment to clear the infection.
The HPV vaccine can help prevent getting the two most common types of HPV that cause genital warts and the most common types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. The vaccine is available for girls and boys in grade 7 and 8 as part of the routine childhood immunizations. It is also available for women up to the age of 45 with a prescription from your doctor or nurse practitioner.
What does smoking have to do with cervical dysplasia?
There are no health benefits associated with smoking, and it is linked to many chronic diseases, including cervical cancer. In fact, women who smoke are at two times increased risk of developing high-grade cervical dysplasia compared to women who have never smoked. Women who smoke are also at two times increased risk for developing cervical cancer.
Smoking does not cause cervical cancer directly. But, smoking does change the way our bodies respond to an HPV infection by making it more likely that an HPV infection will turn into cervical dysplasia, and more likely that cervical dysplasia will turn into cervical cancer. This is why it is important for you to have a regular Pap test to screen for cervical cancer every three years and follow-up when necessary.
The good news is that if you quit or cut back on smoking you will lower your risk of cervical cancer. Even women who cut back are at lower risk than women who continue to smoke the same amount.
For more information about quitting smoking, visit www.NWquit.com.
For more information about cancer screening, visit www.tbrhsc.net/cancerscreening.