Cervical cancer screening expands
September 15, 2011
Program to include 680,000 additional women in province
Jodie Hierlmeier knows the value of cervical cancer screening better than most.
In 2006 Hierlmeier – healthy, physically active and then 29 – received a shock from her family doctor following a regular Pap test. The test had detected abnormal cells and she was being referred to a cancer centre for follow-up tests.
“To hear the words, ‘You have abnormal cells; we’re referring you to the Cross Cancer Institute,’ was very stressful,” she says. “I didn’t have any risk factors associated with cervical cancer or other types of cancer.”
A follow-up colposcopy confirmed she had cervical adenocarcinoma in situ – a pre-cancerous condition. She underwent cone biopsy surgery to remove the abnormal cells. Today, she is cancer-free and continues to undergo regular Pap tests and visits to the colposcopy clinic.
“That’s why I’m happy the Alberta Cervical Cancer Screening Program is expanding throughout Alberta to ensure more women get reminded about the benefits of early detection, such as I received from my family doctor,” says Hierlmeier.
Alberta Health Services is expanding the program to include 680,000 more women, ensuring higher screening rates and better outcomes for those at risk of developing cancer.
The program encourages women to be screened, mails them their Pap test results and reminds them of overdue tests.
Women ages 21 to 69 who live in the North, Edmonton and Central zones of the province will soon receive an introductory letter explaining how the program will help them.
Currently, women who live in these areas receive Pap test results from their health care provider. This will continue, but the program will provide additional assurance for women by sending them a printed copy of their results and recommended next steps.
The program will also provide a safety net for women with abnormal results by sending reminders if they are overdue for follow-up tests.
Invitations and reminders will soon be sent to under-screened women.
Program services are currently provided to about 530,000 women in the Calgary and South zones of Alberta Health Services (AHS) and are now expanding to include the rest of the province. The Alberta Cancer Foundation provided a grant of $800,000 to advance expansion of the program province-wide; ongoing operational funding will come from AHS.
“By expanding this service, we are ensuring cervical cancer will be detected earlier and treatment outcomes will improve,” says Gene Zwozdesky, Minister of Alberta Health and Wellness. “Expanding screening for cervical, colorectal and breast cancers is among the goals outlined in our 5-Year Health Action Plan and supported by Alberta’s stable, 5-year funding.”
Dr. Meg McLachlin, Chair of the Pan-Canadian Cervical Screening Initiative (developed by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer), says Alberta women “now benefit from one of the most comprehensive programs in the country.”
Studies show screening programs lead to improved prevention and correct follow-up care, which reduces the number of women who develop and/or die from cancer, says Dr. Laura McDougall, medical lead for the Alberta Cervical Cancer Screening Program. Up to 90 per cent of cervical cancer can be prevented if women have regular Pap tests and get follow-up care when needed, she says.
“Primary care providers have been doing an excellent job of supporting women to be screened and followed up,” says Dr. McDougall.
“But some women still fall through the cracks and either don’t get screened or don’t get the follow-up care that can prevent cancer. The Alberta Cervical Cancer Screening Program supports women and health care providers to help ensure as many women as possible benefit from cervical cancer screening.
About 140 women develop cervical cancer each year in Alberta and about 30 die.
“Our donors are pleased to partner with Alberta Health Services in accelerating a program that will save lives,” says Alberta Cancer Foundation CEO Myka Osinchuk. “Screening works. And anything we can do to increase participation in screening programs helps us advance towards our ultimate goal of a cancer-free future.”
Alberta Health and Wellness, under the Health Information Act, provides the Alberta Cervical Cancer Screening Program with the names and addresses of women in Alberta, so letters related to cervical cancer screening can be sent. Women are urged to keep their details up to date with Alberta Health and Wellness to ensure letters are delivered to the correct address.
A woman can opt out of the program if she does not want to participate.
“Going through this type of screening process gives me a lot of peace of mind,” says Hierlmeier. “We’re often told early detection is the key to dealing with cancer and that certainly has been my experience with Pap test screening for cervical cancer.
“It is worth that little bit of discomfort or embarrassment getting your Pap test done to have the certainty that you have been screened. It’s worth the five minutes of discomfort to have the peace of mind for years to come.”