Understanding Cervical Cancer & the Pap Smear
- Sky Sports TV reporter Jo Wilson, 37, was diagnosed with stage three cervical cancer earlier this summer. The mom-of-one has since inspired women to schedule pap smears and spread gynecological cancer awareness.
- Cervical cancer is usually detected through a routine Pap smear.
- During this test, your doctor will collect a sample of cells from your cervix (using a small brush or spatula). The cells are then examined under a microscope for abnormalities, including cancer and changes that could indicate pre-cancer.
As Wilson, who’s been presenting for Sky Sports since 2015, started her final week of six week cancer treatment, the star TV presenter took to Instagram to share photos from her recent interview with OK! magazine. “So this is cancer. The hardest thing to go through, and difficult for me to open up about but September is gynecological cancer awareness month so sharing my story in the hope that it can do exactly that. To the men that follow me too, if you have a mum, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a girlfriend, an aunt, a niece….this affects you as well so please read and share.”Read More
Wilson, who is happily married to her 42-year-old husband Dan and has a one-year-old daughter named Mabel, opened up to OK! Magazine in an article published this week that she fears leaving her daughter, who is turning two this month, “motherless.” However, she admits her daughter is an “amazing distraction,” explaining, “You need motivation to get through this and she will get me through.”
And although Wilson insists she’s always kept up with her smear tests, she didn’t want to get a smear after her daughter’s “traumatic birth.” “I ended up with forceps and we both caught sepsis,” she recalled. “I just didn’t want to be prodded in that area.”
It wasn’t until 19 months after her daughter was born, that she set up a private smear test in June 2020 and the gynecologist said she might have cancer. After further testing, Wilson learned in mid-July she had cancer and it had spread to her lymph nodes. “The consultant explained I was quite lucky it had only gone to two of mine. Stage four is when it gets very tricky in terms of being able to cure it,” she said.
Wilson said the consultant reassured her she wasn’t going to die as the cancer was still very “treatable and curable.” She added, “I try to hold onto that, but there are no guarantees. The percentages are still a bit ropey. There’s something like a 70% success rate for this treatment. So I’ll take that.”
In regards to speaking publically about her cancer diagnosis, Wilson said, “I’m a very private person so this was a huge decision for me to speak publicly, and I’m way out of my comfort zone. But if I can make just one woman book her smear test or go for a check-up after having a baby then it’s worth speaking out.”
Understanding Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer begins in the cells lining the cervix – the lower part of the womb (uterus). Treatment options for cervical cancer include surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. We don’t know the cause of Wilson’s cancer, but HPV (human papillomavirus), a sexually-transmitted virus, causes more than 70% of cervical cancer cases. It’s important to note, however, that other risk factors like smoking can make you about twice as likely to get cervical cancer as those who don’t smoke.
The American Cancer Society estimates that the United States will see about 14,100 new cases of invasive cervical cancer in 2022. Cervical cancer screening is critically important because an earlier diagnosis can mean a better prognosis with broader treatment options.
The American Cancer Society recommends that cervical cancer screening begins at age 25, and people aged 25 to 65 should have a primary HPV test, an HPV test done by itself for screening, every 5 years. If primary HPV testing is not available, however, screening may be done with either a co-test that combines an HPV test with a Papanicolaou (Pap) test every 5 years or a Pap test alone every 3 years.
The most common symptoms of cervical cancer can include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as bleeding after vaginal sex, bleeding after menopause, after douching, bleeding and spotting in between periods or having heavier or longer (menstrual) periods than usual.
- Unusual discharge from the vagina that may contain some blood and may occur between your periods or after menopause.
- Pain during sex.
- Pain in the pelvic region.
The Importance of Pap Smears
Pap smears are one way to detect cervical cancer early. During the test, a doctor will collect a sample of cells from your cervix (using a small brush or spatula). The cells are then examined under a microscope for abnormalities, including cancer and changes that could indicate pre-cancer. This is an important procedure because symptoms of cervical cancer might show up until the disease is at stage 3 or 4. By helping doctors catch signs of the disease early, Pap smears can lead to broader and more effective treatment options.
One of the leading causes of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV) — one of the most common viruses which can be transmitted through sexual contact. HPV is the biggest risk factor for cervical cancer, and there are usually no early signs or symptoms of the disease. However, cervical cancer can be detected through regular check-ups, such as Pap smears.
More than 70% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV, but other cancers are also linked to the virus, such as throat cancer. Luckily, the HPV vaccine can help prevent 90% of those cancers.
Cervical Cancer and the HPV Vaccine
Cervical cancer is unique in that it’s usually preventable with the HPV vaccine. The vaccine is typically given to children before they’re sexually active, as HPV is transmitted through sexual contact.
“We recommend strongly that children are vaccinated against HPV to prevent cervical cancer, but also to prevent head and neck cancer,” Dr. Jessica Geiger, a medical oncologist specializing in head and neck cancer at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center, previously told SurvivorNet. “Now the key with the vaccine is that you received the vaccine before you ever reach sexual debut or have sexual encounters. So that’s why these vaccines are approved for young children ages 9, 10, 11 years old, up to 26.”
“Contrary to some detrimental misinformation circulated online, the HPV vaccine is entirely safe. There are virtually no side effects with this vaccine,” Dr. Jonathan Berek, director of the Women’s Cancer Center at Stanford Medical Center,” told SurvivorNet in an earlier interview. “It’s incredibly safe. It’s as safe as any vaccine has ever been.”
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff