January is Cervical Cancer Screening Month and Cervical Health Awareness Month. It’s the perfect time to learn more about cervical health and take action by scheduling your cervical cancer screening. Here’s what you need to know.
What Causes Cervical Cancer?
The human papillomavirus, or HPV, causes the majority of cervical cancers. HPV is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact – often through sexual intercourse – with someone who has the virus. HPV infections are common in both men and women, but most are naturally suppressed by the immune system.
Not all forms of HPV cause cancer. Some strains cause genital warts, while others are virtually symptom-free. You can have HPV for years and be completely unaware. After infection, the virus may remain in your body for decades before developing into cancer.
Cervical Cancer Screening and Tests
Often, pre-cancers of the cervix and early cervical cancer don’t display symptoms. This is why regular screening can prove so important to your routine health care. There are two primary screenings for cervical cancer:
The Papanicolaou test (also known as the Pap smear) is used to find cell changes, or pre-cancers, in the cervix. These pre-cancers can develop into cancer later. Pap tests can also detect cervical cancer in its early stages. And, early detection is often key to a successful treatment outcome.
The HPV test looks for the human papillomavirus, which can cause the cell changes that may lead to cervical cancer.
When Should I Be Screened for Cervical Cancer?
In 2012, the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP), the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology (ASCCP) released new guidelines for early detection and prevention of cervical cancer.
- Screening should begin for women at age 21
- Women ages 21-29 should have a Pap test every three years
- HPV testing for women 21-29 is only necessary following abnormal Pap test results
- Women ages 30-65 should have a Pap test and HPV test every five years Your provider may say you no longer need a Pap test if you’re older than 65 and have had normal Pap test results for many years, or if your cervix and uterus were removed for reasons not related to cancer.
Screening schedules may vary for women with a family history of cancer, or those who have other risk factors:
- Women who became sexually active early or have had many sexual partners (the more partners, the more opportunity to acquire HPV)
- Women with an already-weakened immune system from HIV or other chronic illnesses
- Women who have had other sexually transmitted diseases
- Women who smoke cigarettes
Talk with your provider for more information on screening schedules and cervical cancer prevention.
The HPV Vaccinations
While effective at protecting against various strains of HPV, the HPV vaccine doesn’t protect against all forms of the virus that cause cervical cancer. Women who’ve had the HPV vaccinations should still include cervical screening as part of their routine health care.
When to See Your Doctor
- Women who experience any of the following symptoms should contact their primary care or gynecological provider:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding (after intercourse, between menstrual periods or after menopause)
- Watery, bloody vaginal discharge (sometimes heavy or foul smelling)
- Painful intercourse
Find a primary care provider in your area.