Anyone with a cervix can get cervical cancer

January 8, 2024 Swedish Cancer Team

[7 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • Regular screenings that include both Pap and HPV tests effectively detect cervical cancer in its earliest stages when treatment is most likely to have a positive outcome.
  • Swedish is committed to providing safe, compassionate, high-quality care to everyone, regardless of gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation.
  • January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. 

Let’s be honest. Even when we know it’s time to schedule a Pap test, most of us put it off as long as possible. And yet, when combined with human papillomavirus (HPV) testing, Pap tests are one of the most effective screening tools for cervical cancer.  So why do so many people – especially members of the LGBTQIA+ community – regularly skip their regular pelvic exam?

We spoke with Vinny Fox (they/he), senior program coordinator for LGBTQIA+ education and team lead of the LGBTQI+ Program at Swedish, about the challenges LGBTQIA+ persons often face getting recommended health screenings. 

Cervical cancer is the growth of abnormal tissue that starts in the cervix. Its leading cause is HPV, which can be passed from one person to another during intimate or sexual contact.

The American Cancer Society estimates more than 4,300 people will die from cervical cancer this year and almost 14,000 new cases will be diagnosed. Experts agree the best way to reduce those numbers is regular screening and getting the HPV vaccine. But for many LGBTQIA+ patients, a visit to the doctor’s office leads to so much physical, mental and emotional distress they avoid making an appointment at all costs despite any added cancer risk delay may cause.

Screening saves lives

Screening for cervical cancer includes a Pap test and an HPV test. Both require a pelvic examination using an instrument called a speculum to complete the screening. Screening is beneficial because it can detect HPV and changes to your cervical cells before cancer develops beyond its earliest stages. When cancer is detected and treated early, it increases the possibility of a positive outcome.

Pap test

During a Pap test, your physician uses a speculum and a small brush to collect a sample of cells from your cervix. The cells are then sent to a lab where they are inspected for abnormalities that indicate further testing is needed to rule out cancer. The test may cause some discomfort – similar to menstrual cramps – but it should not be overly painful.

Communicate openly and honestly with your provider about any concerns you have throughout your visit. It will help them know how to adjust their approach and improve their ability to provide the care and support you need.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) test 

The procedure for an HPV test is similar to a Pap test. If you do both screenings at the same time, it's called co-testing. HPV screening detects the type of HPV that can lead to cervical cancer. Although you may feel some discomfort during the procedure, there are no known risks.

Recommended screening schedule

A cervical screening with a Pap test can detect changes in the cells of the cervix before cancer develops. This makes it possible to find cancer early, which is when it’s easiest to treat.

A cervical exam can include two types of cervical cancer screening tests:

  • A Pap test, in which a small sample of cervical cells is sent to the lab to look for changes in cells that could turn into cancer if not treated.
  • An HPV test, in which some cells collected during the Pap test are examined for human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes cellular changes to the cervix and may lead to cancer.

These tests can be done simultaneously. This is called co-testing; depending on your age and risk factors, your doctor may recommend it.

Swedish cancer experts recommend that people between the ages of 30 to 65 choose one of these three testing options:

  • Have a Pap test and an HPV test (co-testing) every 5 years.
  • Have a Pap test alone every 3 years.
  • Have an HPV test alone every 5 years.

Doctors used to advise a Pap test every year, but yearly pelvic exams are no longer recommended, since most cervical cancers are relatively slow growing. However, you should continue with regular screenings regardless of whether you are sexually active or have received the HPV vaccine. 

“At Swedish, we believe everyone deserves high quality, compassionate care, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation or gender expression."

Barriers to care

Why do so many members of the LGBTQIA+ community avoid their screenings? Reasons vary widely from person to person, according to Vinny.

“For things like cervical cancer screening, our lesbian population, our trans men and non-binary populations have extremely low participation rates because of the trauma of going into a doctor’s office to get that kind of screening. From a transgender perspective, you are not a woman, but you do have female reproductive organs. You're going to go to the doctor and the entire time you’re there, you're continually hearing ‘women’s exam’ or ‘women’s health’,” Vinny explains. “It’s a lot of women-centered language – especially if you go to an OB/GYN office, which can be a very alienating experience for transgender men and non-binary people.”

Provider training seldom includes information on providing affirming, supportive care that’s sensitive to the needs of the LGBTQIA+ community. This lack of knowledge in caregivers contributes to the problem, according to Vinny.

“There isn’t knowledge about how to approach that kind of screening in a way that is comforting and non-triggering. It makes the entire experience so traumatic that the risk of getting cancer is less scary than having to go and have a pelvic examination,” says Vinny.

“Add on to that a lot of transgender and non-binary people have issues with dysphoria, especially around their body. So, you’re not only in an uncovered position – and anybody who’s ever had a Pap smear knows that is not a comfortable place to be – then add on to that a layer of dysphoria of having to have that part of your body that you are not necessarily comfortable with be thoroughly examined. You are in a very vulnerable position,” they explain.

According to the American Association for Cancer Research, other issues include:

  • Fear of mistreatment or discrimination.
  • Lack of insurance or denial of coverage.
  • Anti-LGBTQIA+ bias.
  • Lack of legal protections.
  • Negative past experiences.
  • Compassionate, comprehensive care for everyone.

“At Swedish, we believe everyone deserves high quality, compassionate care, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation or gender expression,” says Vinny.

Some of the ways we deliver on that belief is through these programs at Swedish:

The LGBTQI+ Program offers training for providers to help them better understand the historical context, terminology and language specific to transgender and gender diverse patient care. More than 60 clinicians have completed non-clinical transgender health training and are listed as gender-affirming clinicians.

Health Care Navigation Services provide access to gender affirming services, treatments and providers. It helps patients receive the care they need and identify available resources to improve their quality of life.

There’s always a stop button

A vital component of improving screening rates in the LGBTQIA+ community is an atmosphere of inclusivity, says Vinny. “We strive to create a safe space that makes everyone under our care feel respected and welcome. And we welcome input that helps us make that happen. The patient has every right at any time to say, ‘No, I do not feel comfortable.’ They can ask to have an advocate in the room. They can bring someone with them. They can always ask for the clinic manager if they feel like they have been mistreated, misgendered or harassed,” explains Vinny.

“If at any time you are uncomfortable, you can say ‘Stop.’ You can ask for an advocate, you can ask for a chaperone. We can step out of the room for a minute if you need something. If I say something that – intentionally or unintentionally – makes you uncomfortable, you can tell me," says Vinny. “Patients need to know that they have that right to speak up. If they’re uncomfortable, there’s always a stop button.”

Learn more and find a provider

If you or a loved one want to learn more about cervical cancer or treatment, the experts at Swedish Cancer Institute are here for you. To learn more, visit our website, or to speak with someone or make an appointment, call 1-855-XCANCER.

Regardless of gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation, Swedish is committed to making sure every patient gets the care they need. Learn more about LGBTQIA+ care at Swedish.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Contact Swedish Primary Care to schedule an appointment with a primary care provider. You can also connect virtually with your provider to review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. And with Swedish ExpressCare Virtual you can receive treatment in minutes for common conditions such as colds, flu, urinary tract infections, and more. You can use our provider directory to find a specialist or primary care physician near you. 

Information for patients and visitors 

Related resources

You can protect yourself from Cervical Cancer – here’s how

Take control of your good health with regular cancer screenings

Cancer Prevention Resource Roundup

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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About the Author

The Swedish Cancer Team is committed to bringing you the most up-to-date insights about treatments, prevention, care and support available. We know cancer diagnoses strain you both mentally and physically, and we hope to provide a small piece of hope to you or your loved ones who are fighting the cancer battle with useful and clinically-backed advice.

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