Pap tests are a conversation topic some people shy away from, but Shawnna Taylor is talking about it with every woman she knows.
Taylor, 28, was diagnosed with cervical cancer last month and says if she had gotten a pap test, her condition might have a different outcome. She received a pap test seven years ago, but neglected to have any since.
Her cancer went undetected for a number of years and the tumour has grown to more than five centimetres. The size means doctors can’t operate unless her current round of chemotherapy shrinks the tumor. If that doesn’t work she’ll have to undergo a combination treatment of chemo and radiation.
“From the size of it, it’s been there a couple of years, it’s a pretty slow-growing cancer,” said Taylor.
Even if chemo shrinks the tumour, Taylor will need a hysterectomy to remove it, meaning she’ll never had children.
“That’s devastating. I’m just trying to balance that out in my head,” said Taylor, who thought she’d have time to decide if she wanted to start a family with her husband of five years, Steve.
Taylor said she never knew how important pap tests were and wishes someone had urged her to get tested.
“I’ve been telling people, ‘Go, just go get a pap smear,’” she said. “Please, because you don’t want to be in the situation that I’m in.”
Five women in her family have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, and as a result, Taylor is part of genetic study on cancers in her family.
Sandra Krueckl, a spokeswoman for the B.C. and Yukon division of the Canadian Cancer Society, said attitudes are changing about cancers below the waist.
“Things have shifted in society and more and more people are willing to have a conversation about them,” she said.
Lisa Despins, an education specialist for the Cervical Cancer Screening Program with the B.C. Cancer Agency, said in 2009, the agency sponsored the creation of a social media campaign to encourage young women to get tested. The Lace Campaign targeted young women ages 20-29, because there was lower participation in that age bracket.
Since the campaign’s launch, it has expanded to target all ages. Despins said the goal is to encourage and educate women about the importance of the test. It also promotes women sharing the information and creating a movement among themselves.
Last year, during Pap Awareness Week in October, the agency partnered with more than 120 clinics in B.C. to offer pap tests to women on a drop-in basis. Despins said the goal was to make it more convenient and to increase access for women who don’t have a family physician.
In Nanaimo, eight doctors and health clinics participated in the campaign and Despins said the agency will partner with organizations in Nanaimo again this fall.
Despins said the goal is also to raise awareness about the Human Papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted infection that is necessary for cervical cancer to develop. According to the Cancer Agency about 75 to 80 per cent of sexually active people will contract HPV sometime in their lives. Most infections clear up on their own, but some persist and cause cervical cancer.
There are two licensed vaccines to protect against the top two strains of HPV that cause 70 per cent of cervical cancers, but even with the vaccine, pap tests are essential.
Getting the test is one of the best defensive tools, said Krueckl.
“It is very important for women who are sexually active to have a pap test every one to three years,” she said. “Know your body and report any changes to your doctor.”
Community members are rallying around Shawnna Taylor to raise money for her cervical cancer treatment.
For her first round of treatment, she’ll receive one six-hour session a month for the next three or four months. If that isn’t successful, she’ll undergo a combination of chemo and radiation treatment five days a week for more than a month.
Taylor has received $700 from the Canadian Cancer Agency to commute to Victoria and stay at the Cancer Lodge. The money will pay for about 16 of the 25 nights she will need to stay in Victoria, but won’t cover transportation or the costs such as medication or a caregiver such as her husband or mother staying with her.
The fundraisers are to help Taylor pay for travel to treatments, accommodation, living expenses and medications, which aren’t covered.
On May 28 a garage sale is being hosted at 2428 Nadely Cres. and on May 30 Diners Rendezvous is hosting a beer and burger night with a silent auction for $15. Taylor’s mother Sher Matsen is shaving her head to support her daughter. People can donate to the Bank of Montreal account, 07930 8996584. Donations can also be made at both bottle depots.
Cervical cancer facts
The World Health Organization identifies cervical cancer as the second leading cause of death in women worldwide. More than 500,000 cases are reported and a quarter of million women die each year, 80 per cent of the deaths occur in developing countries without organized screening programs.
About 150 women are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer in B.C. every year and 50 women die from the disease.
According to the B.C. Cancer Agency regular screenings can find abnormal cells before they become cancerous and treatments can be used to stop the cancer developing. Every year in the province the Cervical Cancer Screening Program detects cervical abnormalities in 2,600 women.