In 2019, the American Cancer Society estimates that doctors will diagnose over 13,000 cases of invasive cervical cancer. The majority of cervical cancer cases are caused by a sexually transmitted virus called human papillomavirus (HPV), but other factors increase the risk of cervical cancer including HIV, history of smoking, chlamydia, being overweight, long-term use of birth control pills or IUDs, multiple full-term pregnancies and family history of cervical cancer. However, as many as 93 percent of cervical cancers could be prevented by screening and HPV vaccination. Cervical cancer screenings are completed at routine women’s health checkups and can help to find changes in the cells of the cervix that could lead to cancer.
Prevention Through Pap Tests
Regular screenings are key to preventing not only cervical cancer but many other types of cancer as well. Cervical cancer is especially treatable when detected in its earlier stages through a Pap smear.
What is a Pap test?
During a routine pelvic exam, a Pap test will be performed by your doctor, where a device called a speculum is inserted through the vaginal canal to see your cervix. Your doctor will then use a special brush or stick to collect cells from the cervix to be examined in a lab.
How do Pap tests prevent cervical cancer?
Doctors can detect precancerous cells in the cervix which can be treated before cancer has a chance to develop. Regular Pap testing is the most important step you can take to prevent cervical cancer. The most invasive cancers are commonly found in women who have had no regular Pap testing.
How often should I get a Pap test?
We recommend having a pelvic exam with an annual exam for the majority of women, but how often you have a cervical cancer screening depends on your age and health history. Pap guidelines are not synonymous with annual exams. For the best results, consult with your doctor about how often you should be screened.
It is generally recommended that women ages 21-29 get a Pap test every three years, but HPV testing is not routinely recommended. Women between the ages of 30 and 65 should have a Pap test and HPV test every 3-5 years, but it is acceptable for them to have a standalone Pap test every three years.
Are there exceptions?
Yes, there are exceptions. Some women need to be screened more frequently than others due to health conditions or previous abnormal pap results.
Women may need to be tested more often if they have:
- A weakened immune system caused by chemotherapy, organ transplant or steroid use
- Had a previous treatment for abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer
- Tested positive for HIV or their mother was exposed to diethylstilbestrol (a synthetic hormone) while pregnant
Women that have had a hysterectomy with no residual cervix may no longer need regular Pap tests. If you are over the age of 65, you can stop cervical cancer screenings if you do not have a history of abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer, or if you have had three negative Pap tests in a row or two negative co-testing for cervical cancer and HPV in the last 20 years. Doctors recommend not scheduling a Pap test if you are currently on your period.
How can I prevent cervical cancer?
To reduce your risk of cervical cancer, you should get vaccinated against HPV. The vaccination is recommended for women ages 9-26 but soon we will offer the vaccine up to age 45. The vaccine is most effective if given to girls and boys before they become sexually active. At our office, we offer Gardasil 9 to girls and adults ages 9-26. By practicing safe sex with a condom and having fewer sexual partners, your risk for cervical cancer may decrease.
Routine Pap tests can detect precancerous conditions of the cervix, so they can be monitored or treated. Most medical organizations suggest that women begin having routine Pap tests at age 21. Colposcopies and LEEP procedures may also be recommended if a pap smear is found to be abnormal.
Discontinuing smoking can also reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer, as smoking is associated with squamous cell cervical cancer.
Why choose West Des Moines OBGYN?
Pap tests and cervical cancer screenings are an important part of the women’s healthcare that you will receive at our office. We provide customized care for our patients and we will remind you when you are due for preventative screenings and routine exams based on your medical history and needs. We know what a warm, welcoming, and result-oriented patient experience feels like because it is what we seek ourselves.
Schedule your next appointment with us and experience the difference.