Why cervical cancer screening is important

Regular tests find cancer early and save lives

A doctor in an office explaining to a woman why cervical cancer screening is important

More than 13,000 women get a cervical cancer diagnosis each year. Cervical cancer often causes no symptoms, so many women don't know they have it. They may only get diagnosed when cancer reaches a more advanced stage and is harder to treat.

Fortunately, screening tests catch cervical cancer early and save lives. The number of cervical cancer deaths has dropped significantly since screening tests became widely available in the 1950s.

Your provider can perform cervical cancer screening tests during a routine exam. Getting regular screenings is the best way to prevent this cancer and treat it early.

Contact your provider to find out if you're due for a screening and schedule an appointment.

What is cervical cancer?

The cervix is part of a woman's reproductive system. It connects the uterus (womb) to the vagina. Cervical cancer happens when cells on the cervix grow and change in abnormal ways. If it's untreated, the cells can spread to other parts of the body.

What causes cervical cancer?

A virus known as human papillomavirus (HPV) causes more than 90% of cervical cancers. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. If you've had an HPV infection, you're not alone — around 80% of women will get an HPV infection in their lifetime.

Most of the time, your immune system clears up an HPV infection. But for some women, HPV doesn't go away. It causes changes in the cervix that lead to cervical cancer.

Pap and HPV tests: The two types of screenings

There are two types of cervical cancer screenings:

  • Pap tests look for abnormal cells on the cervix that can lead to cervical cancer.
  • HPV tests look for types of HPV that are more likely to cause cervical cancer. 

The test takes only a few seconds. Most women don't find it painful. Some women get only one test, while others may get both.

What happens if cervical cancer screenings show signs of cancer?

Screening tests can find cervical cancer in the early stages. If your test shows signs of cancer, your provider may discuss cancer treatment options with you. Starting cancer treatment early increases the chance of treatment success.

Screening can also find cell changes before they turn into cervical cancer. If your test shows precancerous cells, your doctor may use a minor surgical procedure to remove the cells.

Read more: Cervical cancer risk factors: Know your risk

Who needs cervical cancer screenings?

Most women 21 to 65 years old should get Pap tests as part of their regular women's health exam. 

Cervical cancer screening guidelines

Talk with your doctor about when you need cervical cancer screenings. These are the general guidelines:

  • Ages 21 to 29: Pap test every three years
  • Ages 30 to 65:
    • Pap test every three years, or
    • HPV test every five years, or 
    • Pap and HPV test together (called co-testing) every five years
  • Age 65 and up should get a Pap test if you:
    • Never had cervical cancer screening before
    • Were younger than age 60 when you had your last Pap or HPV test

Women who need more frequent tests

You may need more frequent cervical cancer screening if you:

  • Had abnormal Pap tests in the past
  • Have a history of cervical cancer
  • Are living with HIV 
  • Have a weakened immune system from an organ transplant, long-term steroid use or other health condition

Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is a medication given to pregnant women between 1938 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage. If your mother took DES while pregnant with you, you may need more frequent Pap or HPV tests.

When you can stop getting screened

If you are over 65 years of age, you may stop getting Pap or HPV tests if you:

  • Have had normal screening tests for several years, or
  • Had a total hysterectomy, including removal of the cervix, for a noncancerous health condition

Signs of cervical cancer

Most women have no symptoms in the early stages of cervical cancer. This is why regular screening is important. 

In later stages of cervical cancer, people may notice:

  • Irregular menstrual bleeding, including bleeding between periods 
  • Pain or bleeding during sex
  • Bleeding after menopause
  • Unusual vaginal discharge that is thick, watery or has a foul odor
  • Pelvic pain that's not menstrual cramps
  • Having to urinate more often 
  • Pain during urination

Several conditions can cause these symptoms. A gynecologic exam including cervical cancer screening tests give you the power to prevent and detect cervical cancer. Contact your provider to find out when you should schedule your next exam and screening test.

Sources: American Cancer Society, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Cancer Institute, National Cervical Cancer Coalition, Office on Women's Health

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