January is Cervical Cancer Awareness month, and there’s a reason it’s so early in the calendar. Unlike many other cancers, cervical cancers are difficult to detect. Whereas some cancers begin to produce symptoms in the earliest stages, cervical cancer earned its reputation as a “silent killer” by holding back on exhibiting symptoms until later on in its incubation. Fortunately, the ability to screen for cervical cancer does allow women an opportunity to detect the disease far earlier than they would be able to in waiting for symptoms to rise to the surface. Here, we hope to illuminate some of the questions you may have going into a screening.
So what does the screening look like?
There are actually two screening tests that can detect cervical cancer early, with enough time to help prevent it altogether. The first is the Pap test, also called the Pap smear. This examination searches for indicators called precancers—or changes in the cervix that may one day become cervical cancer. The second test looks for certain strains of HPV (human papillomavirus), which can cause precancers later down the line.
Doctors can test for either or both of these factors. But no matter which they do, it will involve a vaginal exam and collection of cells and mucus from the cervix and surrounding area. The samples are then given to a laboratory to test for either the precancers, the presence of HPV, or in some cases both.
Should I get screened?
The American Cancer Society makes recommendations as to how often women should get screened for cervical cancer. Their latest guidelines are as follows:
Women should begin screening for cervical cancer starting at the age of 21. If all results of the Pat test are normal, then it will likely be recommended that you have a follow-up Pap test every three years until you are 29. If there are any abnormalities in your Pap test, you may also be given an HPV test.
From ages 30 to 65, it is preferred that women have both the Pap test and an HPV test every 5 years.
Women who have been given the HPV vaccine should still be screened under their recommended age group
For women over 65, doctors may recommend no longer having a screening if you have no history of precancers
Women who have had their uterus or cervix removed in a hysterectomy and have had no precancers should not be screened
What should I know about scheduling a screening?
While having a Pap test conducted is routine, there are a handful of things you should be aware of when scheduling an appointment. First, it is important to not schedule an appointment on a date when you will be having your period. Additionally, up to two days prior to your appointment, the following should be avoided:
- The use of a douche
- The use of a tampon
- Sexual intercourse
- The use of birth control creams, jellys, or foams.
Because of the nature of the disease, cervical cancer can be difficult to detect without relying on regular screenings. In order to have the best chance of detecting or preventing the disease, be sure to follow the recommendations made above, and contact your healthcare professional about scheduling your next screening.