Pap Testing and Cervical Cancer: What's A Woman To Do?

Cancer of the cervix is the third most common cancer in women worldwide. Human papilloma virus (HPV) is linked to more than 99% of cervical cancers. Routine cervical cancer screening with Papanicolaou (Pap) tests can help detect early changes that could lead to cervical cancer if left untreated. 

image of woman with doctor

What is a Pap Test?

A Pap test is a microscopic exam of cells taken from the cervix. It is done during a routine physical exam with your doctor. Pap tests are recommended in women who are 21 years old or older. Based on new recommendations, routine Pap tests are no longer recommended in women under 21 whether or not they are sexually active. Between the ages of 21 and 29, routine Pap tests every 3 years are recommended. After the age of 30, Pap tests are usually done every 3-5 years. 

If you are 65 years or older and have had previously normal Pap tests, usually cervical cancer screening with Pap tests can be stopped. Women who have had a hysterectomy (removal of uterus) only need to continue Pap tests if the cervix was not removed during surgery (called a partial hysterectomy).  

What Are The Risk Factors Of Cervical Cancer?

Risk factors include:

  • Sexual intercourse at a young age
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Partner with known HPV infection
  • History of sexually transmitted infections (HIV, herpes, chlamydia)
  • Weakened immune system
  • Smoking

Can I Reduce My Risk of Cervical Cancer?

You can reduce the risk of cervical cancer through:

  • Yearly check-ups with your doctor
  • Avoiding tobacco use/ quitting if you currently smoke
  • Safe sex practices to avoid transmission of HPV and other sexually transmitted infections
  • Gardisil vaccine- This vaccine is available to females ages 9 to 26. It is also available to males. 

The Gardisil vaccine protects against two strains of HPV which are associated with 70% of cervical cancers as well as two strains of HPV which are associated with 90% of genital warts. Also, a large percentage of vulvar, vaginal, anal, oral and penile cancers are related to HPV, so the vaccine likely protects against strains of HPV associated with some cases of those cancers as well. 

What Are Symptoms of Cervical Cancer?

Most early cervical cancers do not have any symptoms, which is why routine exams and Pap tests are important. 

The most common symptoms are irregular/ heavy vaginal bleeding or bleeding after intercourse. Some women also notice a change or increase in their vaginal discharge. These symptoms have a lot of possible causes, however, so it is best to discuss your specific symptoms with your doctor. 

What If I Have an Abnormal Pap Test? 

If your Pap test comes back abnormal, it does not necessarily mean that you have cervical cancer. Many times it means that some abnormal cells were seen which may be due to early pre-cancerous changes. You may be asked to repeat the Pap test in 1 year, come back to the clinic for a colonoscopy, or be advised to see an OB/GYN for further evaluation if you were previously being managed by your Primary Care Physician. 

Remember, Pap testing and routine exams by your doctor are important parts of your healthcare. Schedule an appointment with your doctor. 

DISCLAIMER: This blog is for informational purposes only. It does not replace medical care from a licensed physician. If you have a medical concern, please contact your doctor.

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