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Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix (the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina). Cervical cancer usually forms slowly over many years, but occasionally it happens faster. The purpose of the Pap test is to detect abnormal cells in the cervix, and the HPV test looks for the human papillomavirus that can cause these cell changes. When abnormal cells are found and treated early, cervical cancer can be prevented or cured. These two screening tests, used as recommended by your healthcare provider, can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early.
Prevention and Early Detection
Most cervical cancer is caused by a virus called the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which is spread through sexual contact. Abnormal cervical cells rarely cause symptoms, but detection of the earliest changes leading to cancer development is possible through the use of Pap and/or HPV testing. Visit the Centers for Disease Control website for more information on cervical cancer testing.
Those who are vaccinated against HPV prior to becoming sexually active can significantly lower their risk of cervical cancer. HPV is a group of more than 100 related viruses. HPV is passed from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact and can also be spread during sex. To learn more, visit the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommendations and guidelines.
Screening and Detection
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that women ages 21 to 29 years are to be screened with cervical cytology alone every three years. Women ages 30 to 65 years should be screened every three years with cervical cytology (Pap test) alone, every five years with HPV testing alone, or every five years with co-testing (combination of Pap and HPV tests). Women with certain risk factors may need more frequent screening. See ACOG Clinical-guidance/Practice Advisory/cervical-cancer-screening-update. Talk with your doctor to see when you should begin cervical cancer screening and how often you should be screened. For more information and recommendations from the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) click the link below:
Those at Risk
- Infection with HPV may cause cells in the cervix to grow out of control and become cancerous. However, it is important to note that not every HPV infection is destined to become cervical cancer. Many HPV infections resolve without treatment.
- Smoking increases the risk of cervical cancer as well as advancing age since cervical cancer grows very slowly over time.
- Poverty is a risk factor for cervical cancer. Many women with low incomes do not have readily available access to adequate healthcare services, including Pap tests. This means they might not get screened or treated for pre-cancerous cervical diseases.
- If a mother or sister has cervical cancer, a woman's chances of developing the disease increases by two to three times.