Cervical cancer screenings are an important part of regular health visits for women. Screening should begin at age 21 and should occur regularly throughout a woman’s life. It’s important to visit a health care provider for an annual physical to ensure you stay on top of your health and continue to be screened for cervical cancer at regular intervals.
What causes cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix, which is the organ that connects the vagina to the uterus in a woman’s body. The average age of a cervical cancer diagnosis is 50. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a common virus that can be passed from one person to another during sex or other close skin to skin contact. At least half of all sexually active people will have HPV during their lives. HPV typically causes no symptoms. Many times, it goes away on its own. Over time, a longstanding infection with HPV could cause cervical cancer in women. HPV also affects men – and can lead to genital warts or certain kinds of cancer.
What is a cervical cancer screening?
There are two main types of cervical cancer screening tests:
- HPV tests look for presence of the virus that can cause cell changes on the cervix.
- Pap tests, or Pap smears, looks for signs of precancer. This test looks for any cell changes on the cervix that could become cervical cancer.
Both are done the same way: a doctor or health professional uses a special tool to gently scrape or brush the cervix to remove cells and mucus for testing. The sample is sent to a laboratory for evaluation. Both can be done at a doctor’s office or a clinic.
How often do I need a cervical cancer screening?
How often you need a cervical cancer screening depends on how old you are and your health history. Here are some general guidelines to start:
- Ages 21 to 29: A Pap test should be done every three years.
- Ages 30 to 65: Cervical cancer screening should be completed every 3-5 years depending on the type of screening. Women in this age range can have a Pap smear alone, a Pap smear with HPV testing, or HPV testing alone for their screening. The type of screening and results will dictate when you need your next cervical cancer screening.
- Ages 65+: You may not need regular screenings if you have had normal results in your most recent screening, you have not had cervical precancer or if you have had your cervix removed. Talk to your doctor to see if you need a screening.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Often there are no early symptoms of cervical cancer. Advanced stages of cancer may present symptoms including abnormal vaginal bleeding, vaginal discharge, pain during intercourse, or pain in the pelvic area. Talk to your doctor right away if new and different symptoms appear to determine their cause.
How do I prevent cervical cancer?
The good news is that cervical cancer is very preventable if women are vaccinated against the HPV virus and are screened regularly for cervical cancer or precancerous lesions. The majority of cases of cervical cancer occur in women who have not been screened.
Over 95% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV. The best ways to reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer include:
- Get the HPV vaccination if you are between the ages of 9-26 years old
- Have regular cervical cancer screening tests between age 21-65 years old
- Stop smoking (patients who have HPV and smoke are less likely to clear the virus from their system)
- Use condoms during sex
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raising HPV vaccination rates in the target population to 80% could prevent 53,000 cases of cervical cancer of individuals younger than 12. Additionally, for every year that HPV vaccination rates don’t increase, an additional 4,400 women will develop cervical cancer.
If you have never been screened for cervical cancer or can’t remember the last time you were screened for cervical cancer, talk to your health care provider to schedule an appointment.