Almost all cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). Most cases can be prevented thanks to a safe and effective HPV vaccine. Regular screenings as part of gynecological exams are key to early detection and prevention. Cervical cancer is highly curable when found early.
May S. Thomassee, MD, gynecologist and minimally invasive gynecologic surgeon with Lourdes Physician Group, explains why regular well-woman exams are so important not only for preventing cervical cancer but also for maintaining women’s pelvic and overall health.
Cervical Cancer Screenings
Two screening tests can help prevent cervical cancer or detect it early. The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancerous cell changes in the cervix and can also detect cancer if already present. An HPV test looks for the virus that can cause such cell changes.
Both tests can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic. Using a speculum to widen the vaginal opening, a few cells and mucus from the cervix and area around it are collected before being sent to a lab for testing. Additional swabs also may be done to screen for other types of infections.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends cervical cancer screenings begin at age 21, regardless of HPV vaccination status. It’s always a decision best made with your healthcare provider.
Exams are More Than Just Screenings
Annual exams that include a Pap test should begin at age 21 for non-high-risk patients. Women and girls younger than 21 should start seeing a gynecologist regularly once they are sexually active or if they have any menstrual problems or pain.
Normal Pap test results may mean you can wait three to five years between Pap tests, depending on your doctor’s screening method and advice. Because screening is only one part of an annual exam, it’s important to continue to see your gynecologist at least annually. There is so much more than Pap tests to discuss at the annual visit to maintain good pelvic health.
Cervical cancer is not hereditary or passed down in families. There are different types of cancers that take place in the pelvic organs, such as uterine, fallopian tube and ovarian cancers, which have genetic components. The risk factors vary.
Cervical cancer’s biggest risk factor is having HPV. Other things that can increase your risk of cervical cancer include having HIV, smoking, using birth control pills for five or more years, giving birth to three or more children, and having several sexual partners.
Watch for These Symptoms
Any type of abnormal bleeding or pelvic pain are reasons to speak with your doctor.