Cervical cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosis and cause of death among gynecological cancers in the United States. Left untreated, it can often spread to the lungs, liver and bones. However, it can be successfully treated and cured if detected early through an annual pap smear. The following are common questions about cervical cancer screenings.
Q: What is a pap smear?
A: A pap smear is a test to check for changes in the cells of the cervix. During the test, a speculum is inserted into the vagina to visualize the cervix. The health care provider uses a brush/spatula/broom to collect samples of cells overlying the cervix. A pathologist then places the cells on a slide to look at them under a microscope for abnormalities.
Q: Why do I need a pap smear?
A: It is the most important screening tool to identify cellular changes in the cervix that could be precancerous or cancerous. Since implementing this tool, the rate of cervical cancer has dropped significantly.
Q: When should I get my first pap smear?
A: Your very first pap smear should be performed at the age of 21, regardless of the age of first intercourse. However, if you have HIV or any other health conditions that cause immune suppression, screening should begin at the onset of sexual activity.
Q: How often do I need pap smears?
A: If you are between the ages of 21 and 29, you should be screened every two years. If you are over 30, you will need screening every three years. If you have had a prior abnormal pap smear, then you may need screening annually. Follow up with your primary care physician for any pap smear abnormalities. Increased frequency of screening should also occur for those who are immunosuppressed.
Q: When can I stop getting pap smears?
A: If you have had three consecutive normal pap smears, you can stop getting pap smears at 65 to 70 years of age. If you have had a total hysterectomy and the cervix has been removed for benign reasons, you can also stop getting pap smears.
Q: Do I need to do anything to prepare for a pap smear?
A: The recommendation is to not have anything in your vagina two days prior to the exam.
Q: How is cervical cancer or precancerous cells acquired?
A: Human papilloma virus is a sexually transmitted virus that affects 80 percent of the population. There are different strains of HPV that have cancer-causing potential. Most people’s immune systems are able to get rid of the virus; however, there are some people who can’t clear the virus, and this can cause precancerous lesions that eventually develop into cancer if not caught by screening. Those individuals with risk factors for cervical precancer/cancer include those with multiple sex partners and a smoking history.
Q: What can I do to prevent cervical cancer?
A: There are two immunizations that have been developed which target the specific strains that cause a large majority of cervical cancer. These two immunizations are Gardasil and Cervarix. These vaccines do not protect against HPV already present prior to immunization, so it’s important to immunize individuals prior to sexual activity between ages 9 and 26. Both immunizations are a three-shot series. Minimizing sexual partners, quitting smoking and getting routine screening with a pap smear can decrease your risk of getting cervical cancer.