Which Populations Should Be Screened for Cervical Cancer?

Marine Cygler

January 27, 2023

MONTROUGE, France — Whether you are a cisgender woman or a transgender man who has kept his uterus, regardless of the sex of your partner, and even if you are a woman who is no longer sexually active, you must take part in cervical cancer screening. This is the reminder issued by Julia Maruani, MD, a medical gynecologist in Marseille, at a press conference ahead of the 46th meeting of the French Colposcopy and Cervical-Vaginal Diseases Society (SFCPCV).

Cervical screening currently targets asymptomatic, immunocompetent, and sexually active women between ages 25 and 65 years. During her presentation, Maruani insisted that screening should not discriminate based on a patient's sexual activity.

Sex Between Women

There is a widely held belief that only men can transmit human papillomavirus (HPV). "If you are in a sexual relationship with a man, then yes, you can get HPV from him. But it's also possible for HPV to be transmitted in a sexual relationship between two women via touch, bodily fluids, or sex toys," said Maruani, who pointed out that 20% of lesbians and 30% of bisexual women are HPV carriers.

Because women who have sexual relationships with other women have the mistaken view that their demographic is less affected, they are less likely to take part in cervical screening. They also present more often with advanced lesions and with cancer due to the lack of screening in this group.

Transgender Men

Maruani defines transgender men as "women who have changed gender and who have become men." Why are they affected by cervical screening? Not all of them are. Those who've had their uterus removed no longer have a cervix, so this screening doesn't affect them. But hysterectomies are rarely performed, as they're not required in most European countries to legally change gender.

The figures are concerning: 27% of transgender men are screened versus 60% of cisgender females.

"For this demographic, specialist gynecology appointments are hard to come by. Sitting in a women's waiting room is not easy," said Maruani, recalling that often discussion about the transition phase takes up the entire appointment time. It's also usually the case that any medical problems or healthcare prevention issues not related to the topic of transitioning are not discussed.

Moreover, the online appointment-booking software doesn't allow transgender men who have kept their cervix and legally identify as men to make an appointment. "Gynecologists must disable this default option," said Maruani.

Likewise, transgender men will not receive an invitation to take part in cervical or breast cancer screening, as they are identified as male by social security services and screening sites. Furthermore, in what Maruani referred to as an "administrative head-scratcher that needs to change," some medical procedures are not funded for men.

Yet the risk of contracting HPV is higher among transgender men than in the rest of the population due to different sexual practices in this demographic, as well as the propensity to have multiple sexual partners. The risk of finding abnormalities on cytology screening is greater.

Although data regarding cancer are lacking, "if screening is inadequate but the risk of infection with HPV is great, logic tells us that there will be more lesions, more cancer" in this demographic, said Maruani.

Celibate Women

Nowadays, screening drops with age in women, especially after menopause. This is especially true for women who are no longer sexually active. Another preconceived notion to be addressed is that women who are no longer sexually active no longer need screening. But this concept completely goes against the natural history of HPV infection. "There are years, at least 5, between infection and the development of precancerous lesions. There is a further 5 years between a precancerous lesion and cancer," said Maruani.

A woman could still be at risk even 20 years after contracting HPV. Approximately 80% of women are exposed to HPV, and 5% to 10% have a persistent infection that could lead to the development of precancerous lesions.

"So, a woman who is no longer sexually active can't stop participating in cervical screening, especially since there aren't any symptoms until a fairly advanced stage of cancer." No longer having sex does not mean that screening can be stopped.

What treatment is appropriate for partners of a woman who is no longer sexually active? None. During the press conference, the specialists agreed that a positive HPV test would be of importance to her partner. Even so, they recalled that the infection would generally be an old one and that the woman's partner (whether male or female) would therefore have probably already been exposed to it. Patients should also be reminded that, in the past, cytology testing did not look for HPV, so the virus could already have been there. According to these specialists, you don't need to change your sexual habits, just continue to monitor yourself.

This article was translated from the Medscape French edition.


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