How Often Should Women Be Screened For Cervical Cancer?

Cervical Cancer

What is Cervical Cancer?

The cervix is the lower part of the uterus. It connects the uterus to the vagina. Cervical cancer screening may include cervical cytology (also known as Pap smear or Pap test) and, testing for human papillomavirus (HPV), for some women.

May of cervical cancer cases are caused by infection with HPV, a virus which enters into cells and may lead them to change. Certain types of HPV were linked to cervical cancer including the cancer of the vulva, vagina, anus, penis, throat and mouth.

HPV is passed from one individual to another during sexual activities. It is most common, and most individuals who are sexually active may get an HPV infection in their lifetime. Often, HPV infection causes no symptoms. A majority of HPV infections go away on their own and such short-term infections typically lead to only a mild or low-grade changes in the cervical cells. The cells go back to become normal as soon as the HPV infection clears. However, HPV does not go away in some women. If a high-risk type of HPV infection lasts for a longer time, it can lead to more severe or high-grade changes in the cervical cells. High-grade changes are more likely to cause cancer.

What are the Symptoms of Cervical Cancer?

While cervical cancer in the early stages produces no symptoms, in particular, advanced stage cervical cancer displays the following symptoms:

  • Pelvic pain during intercourse or pain in general.
  • Bloody vaginal discharge.
  • Bleeding from the vagina after intercourse or between periods.

When to See a Doctor?

If you notice any signs and symptoms mentioned above or symptoms that concern you, seek medical attention.

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What are the Screening Tests that Help Diagnose Cervical Cancer Early?

● The HPV test. The human papillomavirus (HPV) tests primarily for a virus that can result in changes within the cell causing infection and eventually cervical cancer.

● Pap test. Also popularly called the Pap smear, identifies, pre-cancers or changes within the cell of the cervix that may turn cancerous.

For such tests, the doctor would use a metal or a plastic instrument, a speculum that widens the vagina. The widened vagina helps the doctor examine both the vagina and the cervix and allows the doctor to collect a sample from the cervical area. These cells are then sent to the laboratory for tests.

Both the Pap smear test and the HPV test can be performed at your doctor’s clinic. In a Pap test, the cells are checked for normalcy; and in an HPV test, the cells are tested for the presence of the virus.

How to Prepare for the Pap Test or the HPV Test?

Preparation for the Pap test or the HPV test is simple and does not involve lengthy procedures. The things to keep in mind before proceeding for the pap or the HPV test are:

  • You should not rinse the vagina with water or any other fluid.
  • You should avoid sexual intercourse.
  • It will be best if you did not use a tampon.
  • You should not apply any medicine or cream to the vaginal area.
  • You should not use any birth control foam, jelly, or cream.

These precautions should be taken forty-eight hours before the test.

When is the Most Appropriate Time to Get Screened for Cervical Cancer?

How often you should undergo cervical cancer screening and what tests you should get depend on your age and history of your health:

● Age 21-29

For women aged 21–29 years, only Pap test is recommended every 3 years. HPV testing is not suggested.

● Age 30 to 65

For women aged 30–65 years, a Pap test, as well as a HPV test (co-testing) is recommended, preferably, every 5 years. However, a Pap test alone, every 3 years, is also acceptable

● Age greater than 65

If you are older than sixty-five years, then your doctor may ask you to discontinue testing if:

  • All your preceding tests have come out normal.
  • Cervix has been removed surgically.
  • Undergone total hysterectomy.

How are the Test Results Obtained?

Once sent to the laboratory, your results may take up to three weeks. If your test results are normal, your probability of having cervical cancer remains low for the next few years. Your doctor would advise you to screen only after a few years.

If your test results display abnormality in the cells, your doctor would discuss the treatment plan. The treatment plan would prevent any abnormal growth from continuing or spreading. You should follow up regularly with your doctor until your results come back normal again.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What are the risk factors of Cervical Cancer?

There are various risk factors for cervical cancer. Your probability of developing cervical cancer increases if you have HIV or any other disease that affects  your immune system, if you smoke, using birth control pills for a long time, having many sexual partners, and have given birth to three or more children.

2. What is the difference between a Pap test and a pelvic exam?

A Pap test helps in screening cervical cancer, and a pelvic exam allows your doctor to diagnose any disease of the reproductive organs.

3. How long does cervical cancer take to progress into advanced stage cancer?

Cervical cancer is caused due to the mutation in the cells of the cervix located at the bottom of the uterus. From its nascent stage, cervical cancer can take several years to become an invasive form of cancer. Therefore, frequent screening of the cervix is recommended for all women.

4. How effective is the vaccine against cervical cancer?

While clinical trials show a hundred percent protection against cervical cancer, since its introduction in 2006, studies report an over fifty percent reduction in cervical cancer cases. This renders the vaccine highly effective.