All women are at risk for cervical cancer. It occurs most often in women over age 30. Each year, more than 13,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the United States. Yet cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers today. In most cases cervical cancer can be prevented through early detection and treatment of abnormal cell changes that occur in the cervix years before cervical cancer develops.
We now know that these cell changes are caused by human papillomavirus, commonly known as HPV. The traditional test for early detection has been the Pap test. For women aged 30 and over, an HPV test is also recommended. HPV tests can find any of the high-risk types of HPV that are commonly found in cervical cancer. You can lower your risk for cervical cancer by getting screened regularly, starting at age 21. Screening Tests Two tests help prevent cervical cancer or find it early—
• The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers, which are cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.
• The human papillomavirus (HPV) test looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes.
Worried about the cost?
If you have a low income or don’t have health insurance, you may qualify for free or low-cost cervical cancer screening through The Cancer Services Program. You should get your first Pap test at age 21. If your test result is normal, you can wait three years for your next test. If you’re 30 years old or older, you have three options—
• You can continue getting a Pap test only. If your test result is normal, you can wait three years for your next test.
• You can get an HPV test only. If your test result is normal, you can wait five years for your next test.
• You can get both an HPV and Pap test together. If your test results are normal, you can wait five years for your next tests.
Depending on the results of the Pap and/or HPV tests, a healthcare provider may recommend additional screening or procedures, so some women may be screened more often.
After age 65, women older than 65 who have had adequate prior screening and are not otherwise at high risk can stop screening. Women who have had a hysterectomy (with removal of the cervix) also do not need to be screened, unless they have a have a history of a high-grade precancerous lesions.
HPV Vaccine The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical cancers. HPV can also cause other kinds of cancer in both men and women.
• HPV vaccination is recommended for preteens aged 11 to 12 years but can be given starting at age 9.
• HPV vaccine also is recommended for everyone through age 26 years if they are not vaccinated already.
• HPV vaccination is not recommended for everyone older than age 26 years. However, some adults aged 27 through 45 years who are not already vaccinated may decide to get the HPV vaccine after speaking with their doctor about their risk for new HPV infections and the possible benefits of vaccination. HPV vaccination in this age range provides less benefit, as more people have already been exposed to HPV.
HPV vaccination prevents new HPV infections but does not treat existing infections or diseases. Therefore, the HPV vaccine works best when given before any exposure to HPV. You should get screened for cervical cancer regularly, even if you received an HPV vaccine.