Cervical Cancer Screening

Cervical cancer screening is used to find changes in the cells of the cervix that may lead to cancer. This is accomplished using two tests. The first is the pap smear, a scraping of the surface cells of the cervix. The other is a test for HPV, human papillomavirus. This test is done on the same cells obtained for the pap smear. Human papillomavirus is a group of related viruses. Some of them cause genital warts, and some are linked to cervical precancer and cervical cancer. HPV is spread by sexual activity.

We begin screening women with pap smears at age 21. How often and how we screen depends on a woman’s age and health history. We generally perform pap smears every three years during the 20s. From ages 30 to 65 we have two options for screening. One is to do a pap alone every three years. The other option is to perform a pap smear and HPV test (also called co-testing) every five years. We stop screening with pap smears at age 65.

If the results of the pap or HPV test are abnormal, the practitioner may suggest further testing. That testing may either be to repeat the pap or perform a test called a colposcopy. This is an examination of the cervix performed in the office with a microscope. With the colposcope abnormal areas of the cervix can be identified and a sample of them removed (a biopsy). If precancerous cells are found, a treatment to remove the abnormal cells will be recommended.

By using this screening technique, we have greatly decreased the incidence of cervical cancer. If you have had a cancer or precancer of the cervix (also known as dysplasia), your frequency of screening and how long you continue to be screened may vary from the typical frequency. Your practitioner will advise you of those recommendations based on your personal history.