Cervical Cancer Screening

What is cervical cancer?

The cervix is the opening from the vagina into the uterus (womb). Cervical cancer happens when cancer cells develop in the cervix. Most cervical cancer can be prevented if the cells in the cervix are checked on a regular basis to see if they are starting to change.

What causes cervical cancer?

A virus called the human papillomavirus (HPV) is the cause of almost all cases of cervical cancer. HPV is a very common virus. About 8 out of every 10 women get HPV at some point in their life through sexual contact. There are more than 100 types of HPV. Many do not cause any health problems, but a few cause genital warts. Another few types of HPV are high-risk types that can cause abnormal cells to grow, which sometimes turn into cancer cells.

Many times HPV will go away on its own within 2 years after it first appears. In about 1 to 2 out of every 10 women, HPV will stay in the cells of the cervix. These are the women who have a chance of having abnormal cells turn into cervical cancer. We do not know why some women keep HPV while others do not.

What tests are used to check for cervical cancer?

There are 2 tests that check for cervical cancer:

Pap Test: Cervical cells are examined under a microscope to look for changes in the cells that are abnormal or cancerous.

HPV Testing: Cells from the cervix are examined for high-risk types of HPV. The test can be done by itself or using the cells collected for a Pap test.

How are tests for cervical cancer done?

Cervical cancer screening is simple and easy. You will put your legs in stirrups, and a speculum will be placed in your vagina so the cervix can be seen. A small brush is used to take a sample of your cervical cells, which are sent to a lab for testing.

How often should I be checked for cervical cancer?

  • Women who are 21 to 29 years old should have a Pap test every 3 years.
  • Women who are 30 to 65 years old should have a Pap test every 3 years or a Pap test with HPV test (co-testing) every 5 years.

If you have a history of an abnormal Pap test, you may need testing more often and should talk to your health care provider about when to have these tests.

When do I need to start being checked for cervical cancer?

You should start being checked for cervical cancer when you are 21 years old. You are very unlikely to have cervical cancer before this even if you are having sex. Many women who are having sex get HPV when they are young, but most of the time the virus will go away on its own and not cause any long-term problems.

When can I stop being checked for cervical cancer?

You can stop being checked for cervical cancer after you are 65 years old as long as you have had 3 negative Pap tests or 2 negative Pap and HPV tests in a row. If you have a hysterectomy and your cervix is removed, you may also stop being tested as long as your hysterectomy was not done because you had cervical cancer.

What happens if my Pap test results are abnormal?

If your Pap test results are abnormal, you should talk with your health care provider about what type of follow-up testing you will need. You may need an HPV test or a repeat Pap test, or you may need to have an exam called a colposcopy. During a colposcopy, your clinician places a speculum in your vagina then uses a microscope-like device to take a closer look at your cervix. A biopsy (removal of a small piece of the abnormal tissue) may be taken and sent to the lab for further testing. Most abnormal Pap test results are from HPV infection and are not cancer. It is important to have follow-up testing to find out why your results were abnormal.

What can I do to decrease the chance I will get cervical cancer?

Abnormal cells in the cervix usually happen before cervical cancer occurs. You should be checked regularly to make sure these cells are not developing. Cervical cancer is caused by HPV. There are several things you can do to decrease your chance of HPV, which means you are less likely to have cervical cancer:

  • Get the HPV vaccine. The vaccine is very effective especially if you receive it before you start having sex. It is recommended for females and males 9 to 26 years old.
  • Avoid or limit sexual contact. HPV is sexually transmitted. The fewer sexual partners you have, the lower your risk of getting HPV will be. The only way to completely prevent HPV is by not having sex or having sex with only one person who has not had sex with anyone else.
  • Use condoms. Condoms don’t completely protect against HPV, but they do lower the chance you will get it. They also protect against other sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and herpes.
  • Stop smoking. If you smoke cigarettes, you are 4 times more likely to have cervical cancer.

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