Lace Campaign brings awareness to necessity of Pap tests

Lace Campaign encourages young, sexually active women to get screened regularly to prevent cervical cancer

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      Young women love lace, or so it appears, as Lizzy Karp and Mabel Lam eagerly pull reams of this fabric from a box on the floor during a party at W2 Community Media Arts.

      Karp and Lam clearly enjoy wrapping different colours of lace around their necks and their fingertips.

      There’s pink, blue, orange, yellow, white, and racy black. “Lace porn,” Karp blurts out at one point, which elicits a great deal of laughter from her friend.

      Anyone seeing them frolicking with the contents of the box would have had trouble comprehending that all this lace is at the centre of a serious public-health message.

      The April 23 event at W2 in the Woodward’s complex marked the launch of the Lace Campaign, which was created by eight young women to spread the word that getting a Pap test not only prevents cervical cancer but is also an act of empowerment.

      As music blared from a nearby room, Karp, a 24-year-old freelance writer, explained that lace appeals to many of the women that she and Lam are trying to reach.

      “Friends that I talk to really love this campaign because it moves women to take care of themselves in a way that makes sense nowadays,” she said at the party.

      Last year, the B.C. Cancer Agency contracted a local marketing company, Hello Cool World, to devise ways to encourage young women between 21 and 30 to get Pap tests after noting that they were not getting them at the same rate as older women. Company founder Katherine Dodds told the Georgia Straight at the party that she recruited eight young women to develop an appealing way to convey the message that women between 21 and 30 should start getting the test done regularly after they become sexually active.

      “It’s not a fundraising campaign,” Dodds emphasized. “It’s an awareness campaign.”

      Karp said she heard about the project last summer after moving to Vancouver from Toronto. She had been involved in sex education in the past, and she said she liked the way the marketing company let the young women, known as the action team, take the reins.

      She noted that the red ribbon has become associated with AIDS, and the pink ribbon has come to symbolize breast cancer.

      “We didn’t want another colour,” Karp said. “We wanted to take something that could be everywhere. We thought lace. Women like lace—sexy women, burlesque women, cute women.”

      They created a Facebook group, started making videos, and developed a Web site, which enables young women to sign up for e-mail reminders to get their Pap test.

      Lam, a 22-year-old child-care worker, told the Straight at the party that she doesn’t think young women resist getting Pap tests. It’s more often a case of just forgetting.

      “I did have a couple of scares before,” Lam said. “They found some abnormal cells.”

      Because she was tested, the precancerous cells were removed before they could develop into cervical cancer.But according to B.C. Cancer Agency pathologist Dirk van Niekerk, cervical cancer remains the second-most-common cancer among women in the world, claiming 300,000 lives every year.

      He told the Straight by phone that it’s far less prevalent in B.C. because of screening programs, with approximately 150 cases being diagnosed each year.

      Nearly 80 percent of B.C. women have regular Pap tests, he noted, whereas only 70 percent of those between 21 and 30 undergo regular screening.

      The Lace Campaign is adding some glam to getting a regular pap test.

      Van Niekerk, medical leader of the Cervical Cancer Screening Program, said that cervical cancers are caused by the human papilloma virus, which is spread through sex and which has a lengthy latency period.

      He noted that if precancerous cells are detected through a Pap test, cancer can be easily prevented.

      "“Even very early cancers beyond that can have a cure rate of 80 to 90 percent,” he said. “But late stages are fatal in a high percentage of cases, probably 70 percent or more.”

      Anne McCulloch, who is with the B.C. Cancer Agency’s cervical-cancer-screening program, also attended the party. In an interview with the Straight, she explained that a woman can get a Pap test done by a family doctor, a nurse practitioner, and some naturopaths and midwives.

      These screening procedures are also done at drop-in clinics offered by the health authorities and by a nonprofit group called Options for Sexual Health.

      “She would remove her clothing from the waist down,” McCulloch said. “She would be covered in a drape and what happens is a speculum is inserted into the vagina.”

      She said that cells are removed from the cervix, which is in the upper doughnut-shaped area of the pelvis, and sent to a Vancouver laboratory for analysis. Within six weeks, women are notified of the results and whether any abnormalities are present.

      According to McCulloch and van Niekerk, women who are sexually active should be tested initially once a year over a three-year period and then switch to being tested every two years.

      Van Niekerk said there are approximately 100 different types of HPV, and approximately 15 variants can cause cervical cancer. He added that up to 30 percent of young women are infected with HPV.

      “More than 90 percent get rid of the virus, usually within a year, at most by two years,” van Niekerk pointed out. “But some women don’t seem to be able to clear the virus, and those are the women at risk for cervical cancer.”

      He said that under some circumstances, the virus’s DNA attaches itself to the DNA of cells in the cervix. He added that two genes can appear to disrupt the normal cycle of cell division when the HPV is present, which leads to the development of precancerous cells.

      A Pap test will detect them and the cells are subsequently removed through a procedure called a “loop incision”.

      “A heated wire loop excises part of the cervix,” van Niekerk said. “It’s essentially painless.”

      Karp describes herself as a feminist, but she also recognizes the importance of getting the message of the Lace Campaign to women who might not describe themselves in this way.Videos on the campaign’s Web site convey a sense of fun.

      “It encompasses going to salons, getting your nails done, and shopping,” she said. “We’re trying to open it up to a really large group of women.”

      The action team is trying to prevent cancer, but Karp suggested that what they’re really doing is empowering women to look after themselves. The proof will be if this campaign succeeds in increasing the percentage of young women in B.C. who get regular Pap tests.

      Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.

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