Cervical Cancer Facts

Diagnosis | Finding Cervical Cancer

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When Should I Get a Cervical Cancer Screening Test?

The American Cancer Society (ACS) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) say that

  • Women should be screened for cervical cancer about 3 years after they start having sexual intercourse. Screenings should start by the time a woman is 21 years old.
  • Women should be screened every year with a regular Pap test or every 1 to 2 years with a liquid-based Pap test until age 30.
  • Women 30 or over who have had 3 negative results on annual Pap tests can be rescreened with a Pap test alone every 2 to 3 years OR with annual Pap test screening OR a Pap test with the addition of the HPV test. If both the Pap test and the DNA test are negative, rescreening should occur no sooner than 3 years.
  • According to ACS, women age 70 and older who have had 3 or more normal Pap test results in a row and no abnormal test in the last 10 years don’t have to get a Pap test again. Since there has not been a lot of research on the risks that older women have of getting cervical cancer, ACOG recommends that women over the age of 70 should still get Pap tests every 2 or 3 years. Talk to your health care provider to decide the best plan for you.

What’s New in Cervical Cancer Screening?

Liquid-based Pap Test

Liquid-based cytology refers to a new way to process Pap test results. Instead of spreading the sample on a glass microscope slide, the cervical cells are placed in liquid in a small bottle. Some of the liquid is placed on a slide and then examined under a microscope.

Research has shown that liquid-based Pap tests can be more accurate than the conventional way of preparing the slides because blood and mucous are removed, making the cells easier to see. Pap testing using the liquid-based method of slide preparation is somewhat more expensive, and so some clinics may not have this option available. Other clinics or health care providers use only the liquid-based method.

Both the American Cancer Society and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists say that both conventional and liquid-based methods are effective cancer screening options. The important thing is to get tested.

For women 30 or older...

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved an additional way to test for cervical cancer in women 30 and older. The ACS and ACOG state that this combined test is a reasonable option for screening women over 30. The test combines an FDA approved HPV test and a Pap test. Together these tests help a woman’s health care provider find the cancer-causing or high-risk HPV, along with screening for pre-cancer changes in the cells. Women in this age group may also choose to have a regular Pap test without an HPV test.

If the HPV test is performed along with a screening Pap test, the results will fall into one of the categories below:

  • If the results of both the Pap and HPV tests are negative (normal), you won’t need to be tested again for 3 years.
  • If the Pap test is negative (normal) and the HPV test is positive, repeat the Pap test and HPV test in 6 to 12 months.
  • If both tests are positive, talk with your doctor about what to do next.

For women under 30...

Women under the age of 30 should not get the combined test. HPV testing is not helpful in this age group. Pap tests, however, are very important at this time of life. Young women have more frequent HPV infections (which are likely to be temporary) and more frequent changes in sex partners. During these years, when HPV infection and Pap test abnormalities are common, it is recommended that women be screened often (every 1-2 years depending on the type of Pap test). Fortunately, in young women, most HPV infections and Pap test abnormalities clear up on their own before the infection causes any cell changes or symptoms. A vaccine is now available for girls/women ages 9-26.

Why Should I Be Screened for Cervical Cancer?

A woman who is dying of cervical cancer recently said “I just didn’t get it... I wish that I’d known more.” With almost 10,000 cases of cervical cancer each year in the United States, it is clear that she is not alone. Each death from cervical cancer is a tragedy—a tragedy made worse by the fact that most cases are preventable.

A vaccine that prevents 70% of cervical cancer is now available for girls/women ages 9 to 26. The vaccine plus the Pap test work together to effectively fight what used to be the number one cause of cancer death in women.

Hopefully you do not know anyone who’s had cervical cancer—that’s not because the disease has gone away—the virus (HPV) that causes the cancer is as prevalent as ever. Early vaccination and regular screening can make the difference between life and death.

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