What is cervical cancer?

The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus. The uterus is located in the lower part of the abdomen, near the bladder. Cervical cancer occurs when cells in the cervix grow abnormally or uncontrollably. The term cancer refers to a group of diseases in which there is abnormal or uncontrolled growth of cells in the body.

Are there symptoms?

Usually, there are no symptoms. Sometimes, advanced cervical cancer may have bleeding or discharge from the vagina; but there are many reasons these symptoms may occur. Regular cervical cancer screenings are the best way to detect something before symptoms appear.

You should talk to your doctor about your family history and personal history. Your doctor will help determine what is best for you.

What is a Pap test?

A Pap test is screening to detect changes in the cervix. This is also sometimes referred to as a Pap smear.

Who needs a Pap test?

The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends:

  • Women ages 21-65 should be screened every three years.
  • Women ages 30-65 may also have HPV testing done at the same time. If this is done at the time of the Pap test, a woman should be screened every five years.
  • Women younger than age 21 and older than age 65 should consult with their doctor.

As with all clinical screenings, please talk with your doctor about what is best for you.[1]

What is Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)?

The human papilloma virus is an infection that causes warts in various parts of the body. It is very common. There are more than 40 types (or strains) that infect the genital areas of males and females. Most strains are considered low risk. They are not linked to cervical cancer and will likely go away on their own. However, more than 14 types are considered high risk and have been linked to cervical cancer. HPV is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, including vaginal sex, anal sex, or oral contact.

How can I protect myself against HPV?

One important way you can protect yourself is by getting regular Pap tests starting at age 21. Getting vaccinated against HPV can also help protect you. The vaccine is available for women ages 11-26 and men ages 11-21 and requires three doses. You should still get regular Pap tests done even if you have received the vaccination.

You should talk with your doctor about additional ways that you can protect yourself.

When is the best time to have a Pap test performed?

It is recommended you have a pap test done around the middle of your menstrual cycle. A Pap test during your period will interfere with the test.

How is cervical cancer screening done?

Cervical cancer screening is simple and fast. It takes less than a minute to do. While you lie on an exam table, your doctor uses a special tool (speculum) to open the vagina. For a Pap test, a small number of cells are removed from the cervix with a brush or other tool. The cells are put into a liquid and sent to a lab testing. For an HPV test, sometimes the same sample taken for the Pap test can be used. Sometimes, two cell samples are taken.