While there are thousands of women diagnosed with cervical cancer each year in the United States, there are steps you can take to minimize your risk. Isaac Thimmesch, DO, PPG – OB/GYN, delves further into the subject, discussing common causes of this prominent disease along with the importance of routine screenings to aid in preventing and detecting cervical cancer.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal cells on the cervix (the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina) grow out of control. If left unchecked, these abnormal growth cells can spread and be fatal if they progress to an advanced stage.
What causes cervical cancer?
Most cervical cancer occurs due to the human papillomavirus (HPV). You can get HPV by having sexual contact with someone who has it. And while there are many types of the HPV virus, not all cause cervical cancer, which is why screening is so important.
What is cervical cancer screening?
Cervical screening is the process of detecting abnormal tissue or cells in the cervix before cancer develops. Fortunately, we have a very robust screening process for cervical cancer. The two most common screenings we use to detect abnormal cervical cells are a pap test (or pap smear) and an HPV test. In both tests, we brush the cervix to gather cells. With a pap test, the cells get analyzed by pathology for any abnormalities ranging from precancer to cancer. The HPV test looks for the actual HPV virus on the cervix, paying close attention to strains 16 and 18 and any other types that could cause cervical cancer.
Why is cervical cancer screening so important?
Most sexually active women will be exposed to HPV at some point. Regular screenings offer the best chance of finding cervical cancer early when treatment can be most successful, and patient outcomes are more favorable. Additionally, screenings can also help prevent many cervical cancers by detecting those abnormal cell changes, so providers can devise a treatment plan before they have a chance to turn into cancer.
When and how often should someone be screened for cervical cancer?
For the prevention and early detection of cervical cancer, we recommend the following to patients:
- Starting at age 21, all women should receive an annual pelvic exam from a provider. Women in this age group should have a pap smear every three years until age 29.
- At age 30, if testing has been normal, a patient can transition to an HPV test every three years or a pap smear and HPV test together every five years.
- For women, 30-65 years of age who have never had an HPV infection, testing for HPV alone may be completed every three years or in combination with a pap test every five years.
However, if the patient has an abnormal pap and/or if HPV 16 or 18 are present, your provider may order a colposcopy for further evaluation. This procedure allows providers to look at the cervix and vagina using a microscope and takes biopsies of any abnormal tissue to help identify and remove any pre-cancerous lesions before they can develop into cancer. Also, screenings will become more frequent if abnormalities are detected based on a patient’s diagnosis.
What can someone expect during their exam and screening?
Most women understand that this isn’t the most comfortable exam, but we strive to be as gentle as possible throughout the entire process. It’s also important to remember that it is a relatively quick procedure and is vital in helping us prevent and detect cervical cancer.
Also, while the timing of each screening can get confusing, we recommend patients get a well-woman exam yearly. Though you may not need a pap test that year, you should still see your primary care provider or OB/GYN so they can perform a thorough assessment that includes a breast and pelvic exam. In fact, many women find it most comfortable to pair their annual pap smears with their pelvic exam. If this is something you’re considering, please speak with your provider. They can help you decide if this option is appropriate for you.
For more information or to schedule an appointment for a pap test, please call 260-425-6650.