The research shows time and time again that millions of women skip out on their regular pap smears due to discomfort, traumatic past experiences and the stigma around women’s health and bodies. That’s why these new tests have proven to be a game changer – but too many remain unaware this option even exists! Here’s what it’s all about and how you can access these tests.
Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women around the globe with 342, 000 deaths in 2020 alone – the good news is that it’s highly preventable through early detection and treatment. Despite this, many women are hesitant to go in for traditional pap smears due to deeply-engrained shame from societal attitudes, along with the stigma and sometimes downright unethical behaviour from doctors. One survey found that a whopping 33% of women delay or avoid screenings due to these factors. That’s why it’s kind of a big deal that mid last year, a revolutionary alternative known as cervical cancer self-collection tests, became available. Here’s what you’re probably keen to know about these new tests.
Shame and Stigma Surrounding Pap Smears
Traditional Pap smears require women to undergo a pelvic examination, which often involves feeling exposed and vulnerable. While many are comfortable with the clinical nature of medical examinations, pap smears in particular bring about greater taboos and women – and men – have a difficult time even talking about the topic. The result? Millions of Aussie women hesitate or avoid regular testing altogether, raising the count of severe cancer cases. In fact, between women aged 20-68, participation only hit around 56%. We’ve also got a third of Indigenous Australian women missing out on cervical screening with some of the reasons identified as: negative past experiences, stigma and a lack of open communication from doctors.
This is where self-collection tests come in. They empower women to collect a sample of cells from their cervix themselves, with greater privacy and a sense of control over their own bodies – after all, too many women have stories of being coerced or pressured into tests or further tests without being fully informed of what’s involved. This lack of informed consent raises the risk of traumatic experiences, leading not only to mental health struggles but also a higher risk for cancer as these women are far less likely to feel safe returning for a test. Self-collection tests aside, it’s also why open communication, respect and dignity from doctors and specialists is so important – poor treatment has lifelong consequences for patients. Now, what does informed consent actually entail, you ask? Well, it’s quite simple – it comes down to 3 major points:
- Information: The patient must be told the pros and cons of the screening.
- Comprehension: The doctor must be certain that the woman understands the above benefits and disadvantages that come with the test. Knowingly performing the screening without the certainty breaches informed consent.
- Voluntariness: Doctors need to inform patients of any conflicts of interest – for instance, if they stand to profit from their patients getting these tests, they need to be transparent about this.
Luckily for the many women who would otherwise avoid cervical cancer screening altogether, they now have the option of testing on their own terms. The sample is sent to a laboratory for HPV testing, enabling the detection of high-risk strains of the sexually-transmitted infection that may lead to cervical cancer. In fact, it's the leading cause of the disease.
Advantages of Self-Collection Tests
- Privacy and Convenience: Self-collection tests offer privacy, which is especially crucial for those who feel uncomfortable or anxious during pelvic examinations.
- Accessibility: The self-collection tests bridge the gap between women who have limited access to healthcare facilities, such as those in remote areas or with mobility issues. It ensures that more women can take control of their cervical health regardless of their geographical location.
- Improved Detection Rates: Research has shown that self-collection tests are comparable in accuracy to traditional Pap smears, detecting high-risk HPV infections and cervical abnormalities with high sensitivity. They can significantly contribute to the early detection and prevention of cervical cancer.
Despite the remarkable potential of self-collection tests, many women remain unaware of this alternative screening method. Worse yet, many doctors fail to inform their patients of this revolutionary option! But that’s why we’re here – to give you the rundown of emerging technologies for health and wellbeing. We believe addressing the knowledge gap is vital to ensuring that women are well-informed and empowered to make decisions about their health. As important as testing is, informed consent and a full understanding of what’s involved in a screening is vital for patients as it ensures ethical treatment, respect and safety. Take these things away and we’ve got a recipe for disaster!
How to get one
In Australia, self-tests are generally performed at a doctor’s office within the privacy of a separate room or area. You can also access these tests at the following places:
- A community health centre
- A women’s health centre
- A sexual health clinic
- An Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service
If you’d rather not collect the sample at the doctor’s, you can ask your if you can collect your sample at home instead. Have a read of the Cancer Institute’s instructions HERE.
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