Cervical cancer screening is an important part of women’s preventive health. Cervical cancer is unique in that it is nearly always preventable. With routine screening tests and vigilant follow up for abnormal results, almost all cases of cervical cancer can be prevented from ever happening!
Two different tests are used to screen for cervical cancer. A Pap Smear is a screening test for cervical cancer that looks at cervical cells under the microscope. An HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) test is a screening test that looks for active high-risk strains of HPV on the cervix. These high-risk strains of HPV cause the abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix.
What is a Pap Test?
Short for Papanicolaou after the Greek doctor who developed the method, the Pap test or Pap smear, examines cervical cells under a microscope. The cervix is the opening to the uterus and is located at the top of the vagina. Your doctor will do a speculum exam, which is a vaginal examination, to obtain cells from the cervix. Looking at the cells under the microscope can show whether you have abnormal or precancerous cells on the cervix. While the test is not painful, but many women find it uncomfortable enough that they do not look forward to it.
Recommended Schedule for Pap Testing
Your first pap smear should be done at 21 years old.
From age 21 to 29, a pap smears should be done every 3 years.
From age 30 to 65, it is best if you get a Pap smear and HPV testing done every 5 years. Alternately, you could have just a pap smear done every 3 years.
After age 65, you can stop having Pap smears or HPV testing done, if your Pap smears have been normal previously.
Be aware! These recommendations are for women who have always had normal pap smears and negative HPV testing. If you ever have an abnormal Pap smear, or positive HPV testing, you will need to have additional or more frequent testing.
For women with HIV, weakened immune system disorders, or exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth, more frequent testing is advised. Some women are able to stop having cervical cancer screening after a hysterectomy, but it does depend on what type of hysterectomy you had and the reason for the hysterectomy. Talk to your doctor for more information.
Abnormal Pap Test Results
Abnormal Pap smear results are quite common, and do not necessarily indicate that you have cancer, though changes in the cervical cells are potentially precancerous.
If you do have an abnormal cervical cancer screening, you may need further testing done. Talk to your doctor about what the next step is for you. Your doctor will be able to review exactly what follow up testing or treatments are right for you.
A few recommendations may help you avoid these abnormal test results. Our doctors suggest you get vaccinated, limit your number of sexual partners, and avoid (or quit!) smoking. While these actions don’t make you immune to cervical cancer, they can reduce your risks.
Schedule a Pap Smear
For more information about pap testing or to schedule a test for yourself, contact Rocky Mountain Women’s Health Center.