Cervical Cancer Prevention and Early Detection

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The American Cancer Society guidelines for the prevention and early detection of cervical cancer

The American Cancer Society recommends that women follow these guidelines to help find cervical cancer early. Following these guidelines can also find pre-cancers, which can be treated to keep cervical cancer from forming.

  • All women should begin cervical cancer testing (screening) at age 21. Women aged 21 to 29, should have a Pap test every 3 years. HPV testing should not be used for screening in this age group (it may be used as a part of follow-up for an abnormal Pap test).
  • Beginning at age 30, the preferred way to screen is with a Pap test combined with an HPV test every 5 years. This is called co-testing and should continue until age 65.
  • Another reasonable option for women 30 to 65 is to get tested every 3 years with just the Pap test.
  • Women who are at high risk of cervical cancer because of a suppressed immune system (for example from HIV infection, organ transplant, or long term steroid use) or because they were exposed to DES in utero may need to be screened more often. They should follow the recommendations of their health care team.
  • Women over 65 years of age who have had regular screening in the previous 10 years should stop cervical cancer screening as long as they haven’t had any serious pre-cancers (like CIN2 or CIN3) found in the last 20 years (CIN stands for cervical intraepithelial neoplasia and is discussed later in the section “Work-up of an abnormal Pap test result” under the heading “How biopsy results are reported”). Women with a history of CIN2 or CIN3 should continue to have testing for at least 20 years after the abnormality was found.
  • Women who have had a total hysterectomy (removal of the uterus and cervix) should stop screening (such as Pap tests and HPV tests), unless the hysterectomy was done as a treatment for cervical pre-cancer (or cancer). Women who have had a hysterectomy without removal of the cervix (called a supra-cervical hysterectomy) should continue cervical cancer screening according to the guidelines above.
  • Women of any age should NOT be screened every year by any screening method
  • Women who have been vaccinated against HPV should still follow these guidelines.

Some women believe that they can stop cervical cancer screening once they have stopped having children. This is not true. They should continue to follow American Cancer Society guidelines.

Although annual (every year) screening should not be done, women who have abnormal screening results may need to have a follow-up Pap test (sometimes with a HPV test) done in 6 months or a year.

The American Cancer Society guidelines for early detection of cervical cancer do not apply to women who have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, cervical pre-cancer, or HIV infection. These women should have follow-up testing and cervical cancer screening as recommended by their healthcare team.

Importance of being screened for cervical cancer

Screening tests offer the best chance to have cervical cancer found at an early stage when successful treatment is likely. Screening can also actually prevent most cervical cancers by finding abnormal cervix cell changes (pre-cancers) so that they can be treated before they have a chance to turn into a cervical cancer.

If it’s detected early, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable cancers. In the United States, the cervical cancer death rate declined by more than 50% over the last 30 years. This is thought to be mainly due to the effectiveness of Pap test screening.

Despite the recognized benefits of cervical cancer screening, not all American women take advantage of it. Most cervical cancers are found in women who have never had a Pap test or who have not had one recently. Women without health insurance and women who have recently immigrated are less likely to have timely cervical cancer screening.

Cervical cancer deaths are higher in populations around the world where women do not have routine cervical cancer screening. In fact, cervical cancer is the major cause of cancer deaths in women in many developing countries. These women are usually diagnosed with late stage cancers, rather than pre-cancers or early cancers.

Last Medical Review: 09/17/2014
Last Revised: 07/19/2016