What You Need to Know About Testing for Cervical Cancer

Doctor Talking to Patient

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 ever developing. However, those declines have begun to taper off—especially among younger women. From 2007 to 2011, death rates from cervical cancer remained the same among women younger than 50, while decreasing by 1.1% per year among women 50 years of age and older.

And many women are missing the opportunity to be screened. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and prevention (CDC), 8 million women who should be getting screening tests for cervical cancer aren’t getting them. More than 12,000 women get cervical cancer every year and according to the CDC report, more than half of them occur among women who have never – or rarely – been screened.

Cervical cancer is caused by HPV

Another way of preventing cervical cancer is to get vaccinated against human papilloma virus (HPV). To get the most out of the HPV vaccine, a woman should get it before she has any type of sexual contact with another person. The American Cancer Society recommends that the vaccine be given to girls at age 11 to 12.

Even with vaccination, though, screening tests are still important for preventing cervical cancer or finding it early. 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 HPV test finds HPV infections that can lead to cell changes and cancer. HPV infections are very common, and most go away by themselves and don’t cause these problems. 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 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 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.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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