Early detection is a vital and important step in detecting and preventing cervical cancer. Cervical cancer develops slowly over time, but it is detectable by a Pap smear (or Pap test). More cervical cancer awareness and testing is important because this type of cancer is easily prevented. Despite being detectable, it is the second most common type of cancer for females, with more than 12,000 women in the United States diagnosed each year.
Doctors use a Pap smear to find cancer cells or cells that may become cancerous (pre-cancers) in the cervix. Women with early cancer cells or pre-cancers usually have no symptoms. Pap smears are typically part of your annual exam and they involve taking a sample of cervical tissue with a swab.
- Age 21-29 should get a Pap smear every 3 years.
- Age 30-64 should get a Pap smear and human papillomavirus (HPV) test every 5 years.
- Age 65 and older should ask your doctor if you can stop having Pap tests.
If your Pap smear results show anything suspicious, your doctor will follow up to conduct additional tests.
Cervical cancer symptoms
In most cases, the symptoms of cervical cancer do not begin until cancer becomes aggressive and spreads into the tissue. When this happens, abnormal bleeding is the most common red flag, such as:
- Bleeding between menstrual periods
- Heavier than usual menstrual bleeding
- Longer than usual menstrual bleeding
- Bleeding after sex
- Bleeding after douching
- Bleeding after a pelvic exam
Additional symptoms may include:
- Unusual vaginal discharge (with or without blood)
- Pain during sex
If you experience any of the preceding symptoms, it may not be due to cancer. These symptoms might also be the result of other, less serious conditions. If you notice something, schedule an appointment with your doctor to have a conversation because if it is cervical cancer, early detection is the key to prevention and survival.
Reduce your risk
There are two steps you can take to reduce your risk of cervical cancer.
- Get vaccinated. Vaccines that prevent some HPV infection types that cause cervical, vaginal, vulvar, and anal cancers are available. It's recommended that girls get the series between the ages of 11 and 12 (though it may be administered as early as 9) before their first sexual contact.
- Practice safe sex. HPV is transmitted through sexual contact. Women who have had multiple partners or who began having sex before the age of 16 are at greater risk of exposure to HPV. Consistently and correctly use a latex condom.
If you are concerned about cervical cancer or want to schedule a Pap test, make an appointment with your primary care physician.
Read more about cervical cancer risks, diagnosis, and treatment.