For GPs

Targeting Cancer Ambassador Jana Urges Women To ‘Take The Test’

19 Nov 2017

Targeting Cancer Ambassador and former Australian Olympic athlete Jana Pittman has used National Cervical Cancer Awareness Week to highlight the importance of regular screening tests for early detection of the potentially killer disease.

The inspirational two-time World Champion and four-time Commonwealth Games gold medal winner is on her way to becoming a doctor, juggling her studies with being a mother of three young children.

Three years ago, though, Jana faced the prospect of having early stage cervical cancer. Around 900 Australian women will be diagnosed with the disease in 2017 and will need treatments including surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy to try to cure or control their cancers.

A new test that looks for Human papillomavirus (HPV) – a virus that causes all cervical cancer – which is believed will significantly reduce deaths from cervical cancer and detect the disease more effectively, is being introduced to replace the current Pap smear tests.

With more than 40 per cent of women in Australia not taking the current Pap smear test for cervical (or cervix) cancer as often as required, Jana –  who was thankfully later cleared of the disease – is keen to highlight the importance of testing.

“I think that stigma is still there,” she said. “It’s still something that we don’t talk about because it’s a disease largely caused by sexual transmission.

“You don’t get embarrassed when you have ‘flu, so why should you be embarrassed about talking about Pap smears or cervical cancer?

“It’s something I’d love to see talked about more so we can help every mother, sister, daughter and every woman who is affected by this disease or who might one day develop it.”

Already a mother-of-one, former 400m and 400m hurdles star Jana was ready to start IVF treatment for a second time in 2014 when she was diagnosed with CINIII cervical dysplasia, a pre-cancerous condition.

She underwent a cone biopsy to reveal whether cancer was present and might have needed to go on to have the cervix – part of the uterus – removed.

“I was hoping to have more children, so finding that this may not be possible was obviously a huge shock,” Jana said.

“I was embarrassed that I had gone so long without having a (Pap) test. I can remember receiving an email from my doctor once while I was overseas saying I was not up-to-date with my tests, but I thought, ‘it’s fine’.

“I had always concentrated on training well and looking after my physical and mental health, yet I put myself at risk by not having a Pap test for so long.”

Fortunately, Jana’s pathology results eventually came back clear, allowing her to pursue her dreams of having more children and studying  medicine.

Others aren’t so lucky, though, with four women dying from cervical cancer each week in Australia.

The new HPV screening for Australian women, can detect up to 10 times more high-risk cervical abnormalities than the current Pap test, with experts saying it will cut cervical cancer deaths by 30 per cent.

With about 17,000 Australian women currently reporting abnormal Pap smears every year – and the introduction of the new screening method – Jana believes it is extra-important for women to overcome any fear of testing.

“No-one likes jumping on the table to have the tests, but it’s so important to keep reminding women about regular testing,” Jana said.

Now a mother-of-three, Jana is in the fourth year of Medical Studies at Western Sydney University.

She is aiming to pursue a career in gynaecological medicine and said her sporting achievements are nothing like as rewarding as her future career choice.

“I miss running every day, but I love this career path more – 100 per cent,” she said.

“I love the patient care aspect and the in-depth personal ‘experience’ you have looking after people over long periods of their lives. This is very special.”

As an ambassador for Targeting Cancer, which aims to increase awareness and educate people around radiation therapy as a highly effective treatment for many cancers, Jana encourages women to be aware of all the available cervical cancer treatment options.

Radiation therapy combined with chemotherapy is able to cure many advanced cervical cancers in situations where surgery is not possible. Sometimes radiation therapy is used after surgery or if a cancer comes back.

Brachytherapy -where radiation sources are put in through the vagina – is one form of radiation therapy that has been a key part of curing cervical (and other cancers) for decades.

“I think it’s important that women are well educated around the treatments they may need and where there are options, to ensure they know these,” Jana, who also serves as an ambassador for the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation, said.

“It’s been fabulous to be part of the Targeting Cancer campaign. Radiation therapy is still not well understood, so letting people know more about this treatment and to reduce fear around it is terrific.”

For more information on Cervical Cancer, including symptoms, causes and treatments, click here.