Cervical cancer screenings extend lives

Despite successes, many women don't seek the tests.

Women and their health care providers have made great progress over the last 30 years in bringing down the rate of deaths caused by cervical cancer.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that about 8 million women who should seek a screen for cervical cancer aren't doing so. And because cervical cancer may not show symptoms, that means they may have the disease but not know it.

A 2014 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that as much as 93 percent of all cervical cancers could be prevented by screening and by vaccination for the human papillomavirus, or HPV. The virus is found in 99 percent of cervical cancers, according to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition. 

In other words, the disease is readily detectable and treatable. But women must take the initiative to be screened.

"Being rarely or never screened is the major contributing factor to most cervical cancer deaths today," announced the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology in 2012 when it presented guidelines for cervical cancer. The guidelines, announced jointly with the American Cancer Society and the American Society for Clinical Pathology, are:

  • Screening should begin for women at age 21
  • Women ages 21-29 should have a Pap test every three years
  • HPV testing for women 21-29 is only necessary following abnormal Pap test results
  • Women ages 30-65 should have a Pap test and HPV test every five years. Your provider may say you no longer need a Pap test if you’re older than 65 and have had normal Pap test results for many years, or if your cervix and uterus were removed for reasons not related to cancer.

Screening schedules may vary for women with a family history of cancer or those who have other risk factors, including:

  • Women who became sexually active early or have had many sexual partners (the more partners, the more opportunity to acquire HPV)
  • Women with an already weakened immune system from HIV or other chronic illnesses
  • Women who have had other sexually transmitted diseases
  • Women who smoke cigarettes

To find a provider and schedule an exam, visit the Providence Health & Services provider directory.