Screening for cervical cancer is an important and routine part of overall health care – along with regular mammograms and monthly breast self-exam. Thanks to regular cervical cancer screenings, cervical cancer deaths have decreased significantly.
Regular testing can catch precancerous cells, which can be easily treated. Those abnormal cells that have developed into cancer can be more easily treated when caught at the earliest stage. When cervical cancer is caught at that early stage, the five-year relative survival rate is over 90%.
If the cancer isn’t caught until after spreading to other tissues and organs, the five-year survival rate drops to 58%.
Women should start regular screening in their 20s and follow these recommendations:
- Women age 25-29 should get a Pap test every five years, regardless of sexual activity and history. The American Cancer Society recommends a Pap test every three years if not combined with an HPV test.
- Women age 30-65 should have a Pap test and HPV screen done every five years, unless your provider suggests you get tested more regularly. The American Cancer Society recommends a Pap test every three years if not combined with an HPV test.
- Women 65 and older can stop screening if they’ve had regular screenings with normal results.
Cervical Cancer Risk Factors
Cervical cancer is preventable and treatable, but there are certain factors that increase the risk of developing cancer. Risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- Women who haven’t had the HPV vaccination
- Multiple sexual partners
Cervical Cancer Screening Tests
There are two tests providers use to screen for cervical cancer.
- Pap Test – A Pap smear collects cells from your cervix.
- Pelvic Exam – A test to detect any abnormalities with anything contained in the pelvis. Your provider can also likely spot genital warts through a pelvic exam. Genital warts are caused by HPV. Genital warts and HPV are contagious and are transmitted sexually. Once you have the virus, you are always contagious, because there isn’t a cure for HPV. That’s why the HPV vaccine is important for prevention along with regular pelvic exams.
What to Expect
What to expect during a Pap smear
Your provider will guide you through all the steps and ensure you stay comfortable through the test.
- First, you’ll be given privacy to change into a provided gown or cover.
- You’ll lie down with your bottom near the edge of the table.
- Your feet will be in stirrups, so your position is comfortable for you and your provider.
- Your provider will insert a small instrument – called a speculum – into the vagina to open the entrance to the cervix.
- Next, your provider will use a small brush to gently scrape the cervix and collect cells. Some women report mild discomfort with the speculum, but most women don’t feel the brush at all.
- The brush is put in a container to be sent for testing.
- The speculum is removed.
The process takes about two minutes or less. You’ll likely receive results within a few days to a few weeks.
What to expect during a pelvic exam
A pelvic exam is a simple process to check for overall health of the organs contained in the pelvis – the uterus, cervix, vagina, fallopian tubes, ovaries and bladder. Your provider will feel the organs and tissues in the pelvis to check for size, shape and position.
- After privately changing into the provided gown or cover, your provider will guide you through the steps.
- Your provider will often start by visually examining the vagina and vulva to make sure everything looks healthy.
- Then, your provider will insert one or two fingers into the vagina and gently press from the outside and the inside of your body. This is to feel for any abnormalities.
- The entire process only takes a few minutes.
It’s normal to feel nervous about getting a pelvic exam or Pap smear – even if you’ve had one before. If you’re anxious about anything, let your provider know. They’ll be happy to help you feel more comfortable.
These tip may help the experience to be less stressful and more comfortable:
- Find a provider you trust and like
- Take deep, relaxing breaths
- Ask your provider to explain everything they’re doing as they’re doing it to help you feel a little more in control.
- Ask about bringing along distractions, like music or a book.
Call your OB/GYN to schedule an appointment. If you don’t have an OB/GYN, find one here.