Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer death in American women. The knowledge and tools we’ve gained since shouldn’t be taken for granted.
With current knowledge and technology, cervical cancer is highly preventable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Regular testing, lifestyle choices and a vaccine can help women avoid this disease altogether.
An essential test
The Pap test detects cell changes in the cervix that could become cancer if they aren’t treated.
The test requires a small sample of cells from your cervix. A doctor or nurse gets the sample during a pelvic exam. He or she will use a speculum to open the vagina and a small brush or spatula to remove a small cell sample from the cervix.
The cell sample is examined under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.
Most women should receive their first Pap test at age 21, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
The best time for a Pap test is at least five days after your period stops. For the most accurate results, don’t have sex, douche or use tampons for two days before the test. Also don’t use vaginal medicines or spermicidal foam, creams or jellies for two days before the test. Any of these products can wash away or disguise abnormal cervical cells. For similar reasons you shouldn’t have the test during your period.
The ACS recommends a Pap test every three years between ages 21 and 29.
If you’re 30 or older, the ACS recommends a Pap test plus a human papillomavirus (HPV) test (called “co-testing”) every five years. However, continued testing every three years with the Pap test alone is also OK, according to the ACS.
HPV is a common sexually transmitted virus. Most HPV infections clear up on their own within two years, without causing any symptoms or doing any lasting harm. But an HPV infection that persists can damage cervical cells over time, leading to cancer.
HPV tests aren’t recommended while screening younger women because most of the HPV infections in this age group will go away without doing any damage. HPV infections are less common in women who are 30 or older and are more likely to be a sign of cancer risk.
The ACS doesn’t recommend screening for women over age 65 who have had regular screening in the previous 10 years as long as serious pre-cancers (like CIN2 or CIN3) haven’t been found in the previous 20 years. Women in this age group who do have a history of pre-cancer should continue routine screening for at least 20 years after the abnormality was found.
These guidelines don’t apply to women who are at high risk of cervical cancer—including those with a history of the disease, those who have a suppressed immune system or those who were exposed to DES in utero. These women should talk with their health care provider about how often to be screened.
HPV infection is the most important risk factor for cervical cancer. The virus spreads during sexual contact with an infected person. To avoid HPV, limit your number of sex partners. Avoid sex with people who have had many partners. And ask your doctor about the HPV vaccine. It’s highly effective at protecting women from the strains of HPV that cause most cervical cancers. (Women who get the vaccine still need to follow the screening recommendations outlined above though.)
Another smart choice for avoiding cervical cancer, as well as many other diseases, is saying no to tobacco. Tobacco by-products travel throughout the body. They have been found in the cervical mucus of women who smoke. These chemicals may damage the DNA of cervical cells and contribute to cervical cancer.
A healthy diet may help protect you from cervical cancer too. Research shows that women who eat a diet low in fruits and vegetables may be at increased risk for the disease.
Symptoms to watch for
Even if you have regular Pap tests, you should see a doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms of cervical cancer:
- Unusual vaginal discharge, including blood spots or light bleeding. This may occur between or just after your periods.
- Bleeding after sexual intercourse.
- Pain during sexual intercourse.