Cervical cancer starts in the cervix, which connects the vagina to the uterus. In the United States, for every 100,000 women, there are 8 new cervical cancer cases each year. The good news is that when cervical cancer is found early, it is very treatable, and most women have a high survival rate. Two tests can help prevent or detect cervical cancer early: The Pap test, also known as a Pap smear, and a human papillomavirus (HPV) test.
When to Get Screened for Cervical Cancer
It is recommended that women begin screening for cervical cancer as early as age 21. Both screening tests can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic and are completed during a pelvic exam. A Pap test looks for changes in the cells of the cervix that may become cervical cancer if not properly treated. An HPV test looks for the virus, which usually is the cause of cell changes in the cervix. If your test results are normal, you can typically wait three to five years before your next screening, depending on which test was performed. This is because changes to cervical cells happen slowly.
If your Pap test comes back abnormal or unclear, this does not necessarily mean you have cancer. There are many reasons why a test may not come back as normal. Most likely, your doctor will recommend additional testing.
Similarly, a positive HPV test does not mean you have cervical cancer. But it could be an early warning. Your physician will need to identify the type of HPV before determining treatment and the next steps.
The Results of Cervical Cancer Screening
A prognosis of cervical cancer depends on a few factors: the size of the tumor, whether cancer has spread, the type of cervical cancer, your age and overall health. If you are diagnosed with cervical cancer, ask to be referred to a gynecologic oncologist, a physician specializing in treating cancers within a woman’s reproductive system. They will work with you to create a treatment plan that may include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Be sure to speak to your cancer team about the risks and benefits of each treatment and any concerns you may have about the effect on your fertility.
It is important to note that almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Spread through skin-to-skin contact, HPV is common and usually has no symptoms, so it is essential to get screened. A way to reduce your HPV risk and chances of getting cervical cancer is to get the HPV vaccine. The vaccine protects against most HPV types that cause cancer – in both women and men. HPV vaccination is recommended for children aged 11 or 12, but they can receive it as early as 9 years of age.
If you have one goal this year, schedule an appointment with your doctor for your wellness screening. Even if you feel fine now, make a list of any unusual symptoms you may have experienced and mention them to your doctor. If you cannot afford to see a doctor, are underinsured, or uninsured, check with your state or local health departments to see if you qualify for a low-cost or free screening. The team at Advocate Radiation Oncology encourages you to remember: You are your health’s greatest advocate.