As a woman, it’s important to stay on top of your health, and that includes guarding against cervical cancer. Although cancer of the cervix was once one of the most common causes of cancer-related death among U.S. women, effective testing has dramatically changed that. Screening can not only catch the cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages but also prevent the disease by detecting abnormal cells before they can turn into cancer.
What is cervical cancer and who’s at risk?
Sometimes, healthy cells on the surface of the cervix—a passage that connects the uterus to the vagina—can change. And over time, these abnormal cells have the potential to become cancer.
Any woman can develop cervical cancer. Factors that increase the risk include:
- Human papillomavirus virus (HPV). Engaging in sexual activity with someone who has HPV is the most common way of contracting the virus.
- A weakened immune system
- Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
- Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) in utero, a medicine previously given to mothers to prevent miscarriage
What tests are used for screening?
There are two main tests used to screen for cervical cancer, both of which are done in a doctor’s office or clinic:
- The Pap test can find early changes in cells that can lead to cervical cancer. A sample of cells are collected from the cervix for testing. The test is often done during a pelvic exam.
- The HPV test looks for certain strains of HPV that have been linked to cervical cancer. It’s done by testing a sample of cells from the cervix. The HPV test can be done by itself or using the same cell sample collected for a Pap test.
What do screening guidelines say?
Screening guidelines can vary somewhat depending on a woman’s health, risk factors, and health history. In general, the American Cancer Society recommends that women at average risk follow these guidelines:
- Women should begin cervical cancer screening at age 21. Between ages 21 through 29, women should have a Pap test every 3 years.
- Beginning at age 30, women should have a pap test every 3 years or every 5 years if an HPV test is done along with the Pap (co-testing). This is true even if the woman has been vaccinated against the HPV virus.
- Women older than age 65 who have had normal test results for the last 10 years and are not at high risk for cervical cancer should stop screening.
Keep in mind that women at higher risk for cervical cancer may need to be tested earlier and more often. Ask your healthcare provider when and how you should be screened.