What You Need to Know About Testing for Cervical Cancer

female doctor talks to female patient at desk in office

During the past several decades, screening – testing for cancer before symptoms develop – has reduced deaths from cervical cancer, as doctors have been able to find cancer early and treat it, or prevent it from developing.

The most common form of cervical cancer starts with pre-cancerous changes. These pre-cancers can be found and treated before they have the chance to turn into cancer. These pre-cancers often have no symptoms, but their cells can be detected through regular screening. If pre-cancer cells are present they can be removed to help them from becoming cancer.

There are 2 types of tests used for cervical cancer screening.

  • The Pap test can find early cell changes and treat them before they become cancer. The Pap test can also find cervical cancer early, when it’s easier to treat.
  • The human papillomavirus (HPV) test finds HPV infections that can lead to cell changes and cancer. HPV infections are very common. Most HPV infections are cleared by the body without causing problems, but some infections do not clear and can lead to cell changes that might cause cancer. The HPV test may be used along with a Pap test, or to help doctors decide how to treat women who have an abnormal Pap test.

Screening Guidelines

Following the American Cancer Society screening guidelines can help find pre-cancers to prevent them from becoming cancer. Screening can also help find cervical cancer early when it might be easier to treat.

  • All women should begin cervical cancer screening at age 21.
  • Women ages 21 to 29 should have a Pap test every 3 years. They should not be tested for HPV unless it is needed after an abnormal Pap test result.
  • Women ages 30 to 65 should have both a Pap test and an HPV test every 5 years. This is the preferred approach, but it is also OK to have a Pap test alone every 3 years.
  • Women over age 65 who have had regular screenings with normal results should not be screened for cervical cancer. Women who have been diagnosed with cervical cancer or pre-cancer should continue to be screened according to the recommendations of their doctor.
  • Women who have had their uterus and cervix removed in a hysterectomy and have no history of cervical cancer or pre-cancer should not be screened.
  • Women who have had the HPV vaccine should still follow the screening recommendations for their age group.
  • Women who are at high risk for cervical cancer may need to be screened more often. Women at high risk might include those with HIV infection, organ transplant, or exposure to the drug DES. They should talk with their doctor or nurse.
  • The American Cancer Society no longer recommends that women get a Pap test every year, because it generally takes much longer than that, 10 to 20 years, for cervical cancer to develop and overly frequent screening could lead to procedures that are not needed.

HPV vaccination can prevent cervical cancer

One way of preventing cervical cancer is to get vaccinated against HPV, which is known to cause almost all cervical cancers.

Having HPV also increases the risk for other cancers and genital warts that can affect both males and females. HPV is spread through skin to skin contact, such as sexual activity. The HPV vaccine helps prevent infections that can cause 6 types of cancers, including cervical cancer. The vaccinations work best in younger people. Girls and boys should start the vaccine series at age 11 or 12, though it can be started as early as age 9.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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