Have You Been Screened for Cervical Cancer?
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 cancerous.
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 lowered immune system.
Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) in utero, a drug 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 performed in a doctor’s office or clinic:
The Pap test can identify 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 at the same time as a pelvic exam.
The HPV test looks for certain strains of HPV that have been linked to cervical cancer. It’s performed by testing a sample of cells from the cervix. The HPV test can be performed 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 medical 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 21–29, women should have a Pap test every three years.
Beginning at age 30, women should have an HPV test every five years at the same time as Pap 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 past 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 health care provider when and how you should be screened.