HPV DNA Testing
HPV affects about 550,000 Canadians every year and is one of the leading causes of cervical cancer in women. It only makes sense that there is a way to test for such a prevalent virus. While it isn’t offered to everyone, for women over 30 who receive abnormal Pap test results, some doctors have a DNA test that can analyze whether or not cancer causing strains of HPV are present in cells taken from the cervix.
There are over 100 different types of the human papillomavirus (HPV) and most people, usually in their young adult years, will be infected at some point. Most types of HPV cause no symptoms and clear up on their own. Some types are high-risk and can cause abnormal changes in the cervix. Though it’s rare, these high-risk strains of the virus can lead to cancer if not detected and treated early.
What is the HPV DNA test?
An HPV DNA test allows doctors to study the DNA content of the cells and to find abnormalities that lead to cancer. The test is about 95 per cent accurate when it comes to finding high-risk strains of HPV. The test, which costs about $100, is not offered everywhere in Canada and in some cities it is available only when paid for by the patient or her insurance company.
To do the test the doctor takes cells from the cervix. He or she will insert a speculum into the vagina in order to see the cervix, just like during a Pap test. Then a brush or swab is inserted into the cervical canal to collect cells. The cells are then taken to the lab and all you have to do is make a follow-up appointment to get your results. The entire procedure is quick and a little uncomfortable at worst.
Why is the HPV DNA test only for women over 30?
The HPV test is generally recommended for women over 30 whose Pap results show specific abnormalities. The test is not recommended for women under 30 because strains of HPV are likely to clear up on their own within two years. Although under current recommendations few women need HPV testing, all women who are sexually active should have regular Pap tests.
There is no approved HPV DNA test available for men in Canada. However, men can be examined by their doctor for genital warts which are caused by HPV.
How is the HPV DNA test different from a Pap test?
When you go for an HPV test, cells are taken from the cervix the same way as when you have a Pap test. But instead of being examined under a microscope by a technician, the cells are tested for HPV DNA using complex technology. From the patient’s perspective, however, the process of cell collection is the same.
Do I need the HPV test if my Pap result was inconclusive?
It is very common for Pap test results to come back inconclusive. This does not mean you need an HPV test. There are several reasons why your test could have come back inconclusive. Inconclusive results could be caused by having sexual intercourse, using vaginal contraceptives, or using tampons or douches the day before your Pap test. Usually the doctor will just need to take another sample of cervical cells.
Is HPV DNA testing going to replace the Pap test?
The traditional Pap test is still considered an effective method of detecting cervical cancer. Women should have their first Pap test within three years of becoming sexually active, or by age 21, and should continue to be tested regularly.
In the meantime, the HPV test will continue to be researched and tested as it may be more accurate, alone or combined with Pap testing, when it comes to finding cervical cancer. It is estimated that about 1,500 Canadian women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer this year and about 580 women will die from it. The earlier these cells are found, the better chance there is of fighting it.
Understanding your HPV DNA test Results
If the test comes back HPV positive it doesn’t mean you have, or are going to have, cancer. It can be difficult for doctors to tell which types of HPV will be cancerous and which ones won’t. If high-risk HPV cells are found, the doctor will follow up with the patient to determine the next step. The doctor may want to perform further testing, such as a colposcopy (magnifying the tissue under a focused beam of light) or cervical biopsy (remove a small piece of tissue).
A concern with HPV DNA testing is that it runs the risk of producing false positive results, meaning the test can identify those low-risk HPV infections that don’t need to be treated. This is why the test is usually only used for women over 30 who are less likely to have low-risk infections.
Coping with your HPV DNA test results
If your test results come back HPV positive, know that you are not alone. It’s very common to feel ashamed, overwhelmed and afraid. But having HPV is nothing to be ashamed of—up to 75 per cent of men and women will have it at some point. Anybody who is sexually active is at risk.
Most strains of HPV will clear up by themselves and your chances of developing cervical cancer are slim, especially if you’re having regular Pap tests. Early detection of abnormal cell changes is the most important step in preventing cervical cancer. Talk your options over with your doctor. Ask as many questions as you want. Your doctor may want to give the infection a chance to clear up, test you again in a few months, or run further tests such as colposcopy or biopsy.
Talk to your friends and members of your family who you can trust. Some may not understand the virus which is why it’s so important for you to understand it. By educating yourself you can educate others. You never know—someone in your life may just be going through the same thing.