With current knowledge and technology, cervical cancer is highly preventable,
according to theCenters 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 can detect 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 human papillomavirus
(HPV) testing (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 they didn't
have any serious pre-cancers (like CIN2 or CIN3) found in the past 20
years. However, women in this age group who have a history of pre-cancer
should continue routine screening for at least 20 years after the abnormality
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
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.