Every year in the United States, there are about 14,000 women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Since January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, it’s a great time to discuss necessary cervical cancer screenings and their importance in helping to detect cervical precancer or cancer as early as possible.
Cervical cancer screening saves lives. According to the American College of Gynecologists, it generally takes three to seven years for high-grade changes in cervical cells to become cancer. Getting regularly screened for cervical cancer can help detect these changes before they become cancer. In fact, over the last 30 years, the number of cervical cancer cases and deaths in the United States has decreased by half, mainly as a result of women getting regular cervical cancer screening.
Women should begin regular cervical cancer screenings at age 21. According to research, screenings before this age have not been shown to reduce the rate of cervical cancer and can lead to unnecessary treatment.
There are two different types of cervical cancer screenings, a Pap test and human papillomavirus (HPV) test.
Your first Pap test should be at age 21. If the test result is normal, you can wait three years before you need another Pap test. If you are over the age of 30, a Pap test is also recommended and can be repeated every three years if test results are normal. For those over age 30, you may also have an HPV test in addition to your Pap test. If both the HPV and Pap test results are normal, you can continue screening with HPV and Pap test together every five years.
If you get an abnormal test result, it doesn’t mean you have cancer. Additional testing will likely be needed to determine what type of cervical cell changes have occurred and whether or not any further treatment is needed.
One other important tool related to cervical cancer is HPV vaccination. The HPV vaccine helps prevent HPV infections that can cause cancer. However, the HPV vaccine does not protect against all of the types of HPV that can cause cancer, so even if you have been vaccinated against HPV, regular cervical cancer screening is still important. The HPV vaccine can be given beginning at age 9, and is recommended for everyone through the age of 26.
Alison Funka, D.N.P., A.G.N.P.-C., is a nurse practitioner at MyMichigan Health.