All women are at risk for cervical cancer; however, it most often develops in women over age 30. The main cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is transmitted during sex. At least one-half of the people who are sexually active will acquire an HPV infection during their lifetimes.
What is cervical cancer?
Cancer is a disease in which your normal cells start to grow out of control. Cervical cancer occurs in a part of your uterus called the cervix. The good news about cervical cancer is that it is a very preventable disease. When discovered early, it is highly treatable.
If you acquire an HPV infection under age 30, it can disappear on its own without causing any problems. If the infection persists after age 30, you may be at risk for cervical cancer.
How will you know if you have high-risk HPV?
High-risk types of HPV infections cause no symptoms; therefore, you cannot tell if you are infected. The infection can last for months or years, putting you at risk for cervical cancer. Your physician’s supporting pathology laboratory’s HPV test can determine if you have a high-risk HPV infection. There are no treatments for HPV, but there are treatments for the diseases it can cause. Should you become infected with a high-risk form of HPV, your physician can closely monitor your condition to ascertain the existence of cellular changes that could lead to cervical cancer.
What are the tests for cervical cancer?
The two commonly employed screening tests for cervical cancer are the Pap smear and the HPV test. The Pap smear is performed during a pelvic examination. Your physician uses a device called a speculum to widen the opening of the vagina so that the cervix can be examined. A plastic spatula and small brush are used to collect cells from the cervix. Once the cells are retrieved, they are placed into a solution. The solution is then sent to your physician’s supporting pathology laboratory, which will look for cellular changes caused by the HPV. If you are over age 30 and/or if abnormal cells are found, the laboratory will conduct an HPV test. If the HPV test is positive, you may be at risk for cervical cancer.
When should you be screened for cervical cancer?
All women under age 30 should be Pap tested three years after their first sexual intercourse or at the age of 21, whichever comes first. Routine HPV screening in young women is not necessary because infections usually disappear in a few months. If your Pap smear is abnormal, your physician may recommend an HPV test. If you are practicing unsafe sex or have other sexually transmitted diseases, your physician may also recommend an HPV test. A vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006 can protect a woman against those HPV strains that cause most, but not all, cases of cervical cancer (and genital warts). HPV vaccination is recommended for sexually active girls beginning as early as age 11. For indications of the HPV vaccine for young males, please refer to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention website, listed below.
All women over age 30 should have a Pap smear along with the HPV test. If your Pap smear and HPV test are both negative, you should be rescreened in three years. If either of these tests is positive, your physician will recommend the appropriate follow-up treatment. Depending on the cellular changes found, your physician may retest you more frequently. Any further treatment plans for more advanced disease should be developed in consultation with your physician.
It is important to be screened for cervical cancer because 60 percent of cervical cancers occur in women who have never received a Pap smear and/or have not been tested during the past five years.
This information is intended for patient education and information only. It does not constitute advice, nor should it be taken to suggest or replace professional medical care from your physician. Your treatment options may vary, depending upon your medical history and current condition. Only your physician and you can determine your best treatment option.
For more information:
• American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
• National Institutes of Health