January is Cervical Cancer Awareness
Month. When cancer starts in the cervix, it is called cervical cancer. The cervix
is the lower, narrow end of the uterus. All women are at risk for cervical
cancer. It occurs most often in women 30 years and older. Each year, about
12,000 women in the U.S. get cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is the
easiest female cancer to prevent with regular screening tests and follow-up
appointments. Two screening tests can help prevent cervical cancer or detect it
•The Pap test screens for pre-cancers
or cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not
•The Human Papillomavirus, or
HPV, test looks for the virus that can cause the cell changes.
The Pap test is recommended
for all women between the ages of 21 and 65 years old and can be done in a doctor’s
office or clinic. During the Pap test, a doctor can collect cells and mucus
from the cervix and the area around it. The cells are then placed on a slide or
in a bottle of liquid and sent to a laboratory. The laboratory will check to
ensure the cells are normal.
If a patient gets the HPV test,
along with the Pap test, the cells collected during the Pap test will be tested
for HPV at the laboratory. Patients should talk to a doctor, nurse or other
health care professional about whether the HPV test is right for them.
When a Pap test is performed,
the doctor also may perform a pelvic exam, checking the uterus and ovaries to
ensure no problems exist. There are times when a doctor may perform a pelvic
exam without performing a Pap test. Patients should talk to their doctor about
which test they are having, if they are unsure.
For patients who have a lower
income or do not have health insurance, they may be able to get a free or
low-cost Pap test through the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early
WHEN TO GET SCREENED
Women should start getting regular
Pap tests at 21 years old. The Pap test is one of the most reliable and
effective cancer-screening tests available.
The only cancer for which the
Pap test screens for is cervical cancer. It does not screen for ovarian,
uterine, vaginal or vulva cancers. So even if a patient has had a Pap test regularly,
if they notice any signs or symptoms unusual for them, they should see a
doctor. If Pap test results are normal, a doctor may tell the patient she can
wait three years until her next Pap test.
Women 30 years and older may
choose to have an HPV test, along with the Pap test. Both tests can be
performed by a doctor at the same time. When both tests are performed together,
it is called co-testing. If test results are normal, the chance of a patient
getting cervical cancer in the next few years is very low. A doctor may then
tell a patient she can wait as long as five years for her next screening. But
she should still go to the doctor regularly for a checkup.
For women 21 to 65 years old,
it is important to continue getting a Pap test as directed by a doctor, even if
a patient thinks she is too old to have a child or are not having sex anymore.
For women 65 years or older,
or for those who have had normal Pap test results for several years or who have
had their cervix removed as part of a total hysterectomy for non-cancerous
conditions like fibroids, a doctor may tell the patient she doesn’t need to have
a Pap test anymore.
PAP TEST RESULTS
It can take as long as
three weeks to receive Pap test results. If a test shows something might not be
normal, doctors will contact a patient and do a follow up exam. There are many
reasons why Pap test results might not be normal. It doesn’t always mean the
patient has cancer.
If Pap test results show cells
are not normal and may become cancer, a doctor will let the patient know if she
needs to be treated. In most cases, treatment prevents cervical cancer from
developing. It is important to follow up with a doctor right away to learn more
about test results and receive any treatment that may be needed.
Information for this article was compiled by the
Centers for Disease Control.