Cervical cancer screening is used to find changes in the cells of the cervix that could lead to cancer. Screening includes the Pap test and, for some women, testing for human papillomavirus (HPV). Most women should have cervical cancer screening on a regular basis.
Studies over the past decades have found that there is no advantage to having yearly pap tests over Pap tests every 3 years. Yearly Pap tests do find a slightly higher number of cancer cases than tests performed every 3 years. However, women who have yearly screenings undergo many more follow-up tests for what turns out not to be cancer than women who have 3-year testing. You should still see your health care provider every year for well-woman care and any reproductive health care or information.
Why Cervical Cancer Screening is Done
The cervix is the opening of the uterus at the top of the vagina. It is covered by a thin layer of tissue. This tissue is made up of cells. As these cells develop, the cells at the bottom layer slowly move to the surface of the cervix. During this process, some cells may become abnormal or damaged. Abnormal cells on the cervix may lead to cancer. These precancerous changes are called dysplasia or squamous intraepithelial lesions (SIL). SIL can be either low-grade or high-grade.
Screening tests are used to find diseases in people who do not have signs or symptoms. This allows early treatment. The earlier cancer is treated, the greater the chance of survival. Cervical cancer screening is used to detect abnormal cervical cells. It allows early diagnosis and treatment so that the abnormal cells do not become cancer.
How Cervical Screening is Done
Cervical cancer screening includes the Pap test and, for some women, an HPV test:
- The Pap test involves removing a small sample of cells from the cervix. The sample is sent to a lab and examined under a microscope to see if abnormal cells are present.
An HPV test looks for the presence of 13-14 high-risk HPV types in cells of the cervix. HPV is a virus. High-risk types can lead to cervical cancer. HPV is passes from person to person during sexual activity.
cervical cancer screening is simple and fast. It takes less than a minute to do. For a Pap test, you lie on an exam table and a speculum is used to open the cervix and upper vagina. A small number of cells are removed from the cervix with a brush or other tool. The cells are put into a liquid and sent to a lab for testing. A computer may be used to look for abnormal cells. For an HPV test, usually the sample taken for the Pap test also can be used for the HPV test. Sometimes, two cell samples are taken. It depends on the type of Pap test your health care provider uses.
Cervical cancer screening can find cell changes that may lead to cancer of the cervix. Routine screening can help find problems early, when they are more easily treated. How often you should have screening and which tests you should have depends on your age and health history. Contact us if you have any questions or to schedule an appointment.