Cervical Cancer Screening


Doctors use two screening tests to help prevent cervical cancer or find it early:

  • The Pap smear — This screening for cervical cancer tests for the presence of precancerous or cancerous cells on the cervix. During the routine exam, cells from your cervix are gently scraped away and then examined for abnormal growth. The procedure is done in the doctor’s office and, while it may be mildly uncomfortable, it doesn’t usually cause any long-term pain.
  • The HPV test  — This screening looks for the human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical cells to become cancerous. It’s usually done at the same time as the Pap test, and often uses cells from the same sample.

When Should I Start Getting a Cervical Cancer Screening?

Most women should start getting regular Pap smears at age 21. Some women may be at increased risk for cancer or infection. You may need more frequent tests if:

  • You’re HIV-positive
  • You have a weakened immune system from chemotherapy or an organ transplant

If you’re over 30 and have had three normal Pap tests in a row, ask your doctor about having one every five years if the test is combined with a human papillomavirus (HPV) screening.

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that can cause genital warts and cancer. The most common HPV viruses associated with cervical cancer are HPV types 16 and 18. If you have HPV, you have an increased risk of having an abnormal Pap smear.

Women over the age of 65 with a history of normal Pap test results for 20 years may be able to stop having Pap smears in the future.

You should still get regular Pap smears even if you’re in a monogamous relationship because the HPV virus can be dormant for years, and then suddenly become active.

How Often Do I Need a Pap Smear?

How often you need a Pap smear is determined by various factors, including your age and risk.

  • 21 years old, not sexually active, no known risk – none needed
  • 21 years old, sexually active – every three years
  • 21-29 – every three years
  • 30-65 – every three-five years if your Pap smear and HPV test are negative
  • 65 and older –  you may no longer need Pap smear tests; talk to your doctor to determine your needs

How to Prepare for a Pap Smear

If you’ll be menstruating on the day of your Pap smear, your doctor may want to reschedule the test, since results could be less accurate. Try to avoid having sexual intercourse, douching, or using spermicidal products the day before your test because these may interfere with your results.

In most cases, it’s safe to have a Pap smear in the first 24 weeks of a pregnancy. After that, the test may be more painful. You should also wait until 12 weeks after giving birth to increase the accuracy of your results.

Since Pap smears go more smoothly if your body is relaxed, it’s important to stay calm and take deep breaths during the procedure.

What Happens During a Pap Smear?

Pap smears can be a bit uncomfortable, but the test is very quick.

During the procedure, you’ll lie on your back on an examination table with your legs spread and your feet resting in supports called stirrups.

Your doctor will slowly insert a device called a speculum into your vagina. This device keeps the vaginal walls open and provides access to the cervix.

Then your doctor will scrape a small sample of cells from your cervix. There are a few ways your doctor can take this sample. Some use a tool called a spatula, some use a spatula and a brush, and others used a device called a cytobrush, which is a combination spatula and brush.

Most women feel a slight push and irritation during the brief scraping.

The sample of cells from your cervix will be preserved and sent to a lab to be tested for the presence of abnormal cells.

After the test, you might feel mild discomfort from the scraping, or a bit of cramping. You could also experience very light vaginal bleeding immediately following the test. Tell your doctor if discomfort or bleeding continues after the day of the test.

If your test results show cells that could develop into cancer, your doctor will tell you if you need to be treated. In most cases, treatment prevents cervical cancer, so follow up with your doctor right away. He or she can help you learn more about your results and give you any treatment you need.

If your test results are normal, the chances are low that you will get cervical cancer in the next few years. Your doctor may recommend you wait several years for your next test. But you should still go to the doctor regularly for checkups.

Make an appointment for cervical cancer screening by calling Healthcare Coordination. Learn more about cervical cancer at the Centers for Disease Control.

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