Cervical cancer screenings: Early detection may lead to successful treatment

Cervical cancer occurs in the cells of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus. Screening tests can find cervical cancer early, when treatment tends to be more successful. Screenings can also detect abnormal cells that may be pre-cancers, so they can be treated before the cells turn into cervical cancer. The most important thing you can do to help prevent cervical cancer is to have regular screenings starting at age 21.

What causes cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer begins when healthy cells in the cervix change. The cells grow and multiply out of control, forming a tumor. A sexually transmitted infection called the human papillomavirus (HPV) causes most cervical cancers. HPV is very common. Most people with the virus never develop cancer. Other factors, including your lifestyle, also play a role in determining whether you’ll develop cervical cancer.

Take steps to lower your risk factors

Making healthy lifestyle choices can help prevent cervical cancer.

  • Don’t smoke. Smoking is associated with some cervical cancers, so if you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you smoke, ask your doctor about strategies to help you quit. Many health plans offer tobacco cessation programs.
  • Practice safe sex. Using condoms during sex is associated with a lower rate of cervical cancer. Condoms can help prevent sexually transmitted infections that can increase your risk of HPV.
  • Limit your number of sexual partners. Having many sexual partners can increase your chance of getting HPV. Having sex at an early age can also increase your risk of HPV.
  • Consider getting vaccinated. Ask your doctor if an HPV vaccine is right for you. Getting vaccinated to prevent an HPV infection can reduce your risk of cervical cancer.

Get routine screening tests

Early-stage cervical cancer usually has no symptoms, so it’s important to be tested. Screening tests for cervical cancer include a Pap test and HPV test.

  • A Pap test looks for changes in cells of the cervix that might become cancer if they’re not treated. When found early, changes in these cells can be treated before they turn into cancer.
  • An HPV test looks for the virus that can cause changes in the cells on the cervix. When an HPV test is done alone, it’s called a primary HPV test. When it’s done at the same time as a Pap test, it’s called a co-test.

Cervical cancer screening guidelines

Following cervical cancer screening recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) can help find cervical cancer early and detect abnormal cells before they turn into cancer.

Age 21 – 29

  • Every three years with a Pap test

Age 30 – 65

  • Every three years with a Pap test OR
  • Every five years with a primary HPV test OR
  • Every five years with an HPV test combined with a Pap test

Depending on your health history, your doctor may recommend that you be screened more often.

Continue to follow cervical cancer screening guidelines after you stop having children. If you’re over the age of 65 or have had a total hysterectomy, ask your doctor if you should stop cervical cancer screenings.