MENU

The Truth About Cervical Cancer Screening: How Often Should You Get Tested?

Posted on Thursday, September 7, 2017

The smartest thing you can do to help prevent cervical cancer is to get the right test at the right time.

Two tests are widely used to screen for cancer in the cervix, the narrow opening to the uterus at the top of the vagina:Dr. Christina Chu is a gynecologic oncologist at Fox Chase.Dr. Christina Chu is a gynecologic oncologist at Fox Chase.

  • The Pap test can find abnormal cells early, before they turn into cancer.  
  • The HPV test looks for the virus that is the main cause of cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer rates have dropped dramatically in the US over the past 40 years. This is largely due to increased Pap testing. “Cervical cancer is totally preventable, said Fox Chase gynecologic oncologist Christina Chu, MD but you must get the Pap test.”

Many women understand that cervical cancer screening is simple and beneficial, but there is a lot of confusion about how often to get tested. The confusion stems partly from the fact that doctors used to recommend annual Pap screenings for all women – and some still do. But many studies found that for most women, there was no real advantage to getting Pap tests every year. Dr. Chu explained, “Moving from yearly Pap tests to every 3 years, there’s been no drop in the rate of picking up abnormalities, but there has been a decrease in the rate of false positives. False positives create unnecessary stress and require additional follow-up tests.”

When to get screened

These guidelines are designed to avoid unnecessary testing for women whose test results are normal or show only mild, or low-grade, abnormal cells. Here’s what you need to know:

If you are…

Guidelines say…

21 – 29 years old

 

  • Get your first Pap test at age 21​
  • ​If the results are normal, get a Pap test every 3 years
  • You do not need an HPV test until you turn 30

 

30 – 65 years old

 

  • Get a Pap test and an HPV test (co-testing) every 5 years

OR

  • Get a Pap test every 3 years

 

Age 66 or older

Stop getting Pap tests if:

  • You have no history of moderate or severe abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer

AND

  • You have had negative Pap test results in a row OR 2 negative co-test results in a row within the past 10 years

 

What about the HPV vaccine?

“The most important thing to remember is that prevention is better than treatment,” Dr. Chu emphasized. “Get your sons and daughters vaccinated for HPV. The vaccine is incredibly effective at preventing infection due to the strains responsible for ~80% of cervical cancer.” If you have had the HPV vaccine, you still need to follow the cervical cancer screening guidelines for women your age.

When more frequent testing is needed

  • Some women have health issues that put them at higher risk for cervical cancer. You may need to be screened more often – and followed more closely by your doctor – if you:
  • Have a history of cervical cancer or moderate to severe cervical cell changes
  • Are infected with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) or have a weakened immune system
  • Were exposed to DES (diethylstilbestrol) before birth

What if you’ve had a hysterectomy?

  • If you had surgery to remove your uterus, you may still need cervical cancer screening. It depends on several factors.  You are more likely to need screening if:
  • Your cervix was not removed as part of your surgery
  • You had the hysterectomy to remove abnormal or cancerous cells
  • You have high-risk HPV infection   

Even if your cervix was removed, there may still be some cervical cells at the top of the vagina. If you have a history of cervical cancer or cervical cell changes, you should continue to have screening for 20 years after the time of your surgery.

​A happy ending

The good news is that most women who get routine screenings and follow-up care if needed do not develop cervical cancer. Regular testing can find cervical cancer at an early stage even if there are no symptoms.  As Anna Jolly Sadbeck learned, when cervical cancer is found early, it can be curable.

Anna was diagnosed with early-stage cervical cancer after a routine checkup and Pap test.  She was 26 years old. Gynecologic surgeons at Fox Chase were able to remove the cancer and preserve her fertility. Three years later, she gave birth to her first child. “Fox Chase gave me the opportunity to beat my cancer and realize my dream of motherhood,” Anna recalled. “I could not be more grateful to the doctors and nursing staff at Fox Chase for making our dreams come true.” In Dr. Chu’s words, “Get screened, get vaccinated. As women, we have this opportunity to take care of ourselves and our daughters.”

For questions or comments about this post, please contact us.

Fox Chase Cancer Center-Temple Health

About Fox Chase Conversations

Cancer Conversations is the Fox Chase Cancer Center blog for news and analysis from staff and friends of the Center, reflecting current news in the field of oncology.

View all posts

       

Connect with Fox Chase