How to Prevent Cervical Cancer or Find It Early

female doctor talks to female patient at desk in office

Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women. But over the past several decades, screening – testing for cancer before symptoms develop – has reduced cervical cancer deaths, as doctors have been able to find and treat problems before they become cancer – or find cancer early when it’s easier to treat.

  • The Pap test can find abnormal cells early so they can be treated before they become cancer. The Pap test can also find cervical cancer early, when it’s easier to treat.
  • The HPV test finds human papilloma virus (HPV) infections. Being infected with HPV can increase the risk of getting cervical cancer. HPV infections are very common, and most go away by themselves and don’t cause problems. But in some cases, they lead to abnormal cell changes and cancer. The HPV test may be used along with a Pap test, or to help doctors decide on the next steps for women who have an abnormal Pap test.

Screening Guidelines

Following the American Cancer Society guidelines can help find cervical cancer early, and can also find pre-cancers, which can be treated to keep cervical cancer from forming.

  • All women should begin cervical cancer screening at age 21.
  • Women between the ages of 21 and 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 between the ages of 30 and 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 in the previous 10 years with normal results should stop screening 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 stop screening (including Pap tests and HPV tests).
  • 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 health care team.

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 Can Cause Cervical Cancer

Another way of preventing cervical cancer is to get vaccinated against HPV. To get the most out of the HPV vaccine, it should be given before any type of sexual contact with another person occurs. The virus has also been linked to cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and throat. HPV is also a major cause of genital warts.

The American Cancer Society recommends:

  • Routine HPV vaccination for girls and boys should be started at age 11 or 12. The vaccination series can be started as early as age 9.
  • HPV vaccination is also recommended for females 13 to 26 years old and for males 13 to 21 years old who have not started the vaccines, or who have started but not completed the series. Males 22 to 26 years old may also be vaccinated.*
  • HPV vaccination is also recommended through age 26 for men who have sex with men and for people with weakened immune systems (including people with HIV infection), if they have not previously been vaccinated.

*For people 22 to 26 years old who have not started the vaccines, or who have started but not completed the series, it’s important to know that vaccination at older ages is less effective in lowering cancer risk.