Screening Tests That Can Prevent Cervical Cancer & What You Should Know
- 6 mins read
- Health Conditions
- Women's Health
- Dr. Pramod Mane
Cervical cancer is one of the leading causes of death in women by cancer. It occurs in the cells of the cervix which is the lower part of women uterus connecting to the vagina. A virus named Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the leading cause of this cancer which is a sexually transmitted infection.
Upon exposure to this virus, our body’s immune system acts on it to prevent any harm. However, in a small percentage of people, the virus stays in the body for years, ultimately making the cells of cervix cancerous and harmful. Some basic characteristics are inflamed, swollen cervix and cervical ectopy which means a velvet-like graze or a raw surface appearance on the outer side of the cervix.
The American Cancer Society reports that the risk of cervical cancer is very low or rare in women <20 years of age. However, the risk is highest in women aged between 35-44.
To know if you are at risk of cervical cancer, you can take our risk-assessment test here!
Cervical cancer causes include changes on a molecular level inside the DNA and proteins which lead to uncontrolled growth of the cells making it cancerous. Some common symptoms include vaginal bleeding after intercourse or periods, pelvic pain, watery and bloody vaginal discharge. Prevention from the cancer includes practice of safe sex, getting vaccinated for the HPV virus, routine lab smear tests and less smoking.
Wait that’s all to it? So, what can we do about it. Find out below.
How to reduce the risk of cervical cancer?
Ever since the discovery of HPV vaccine, getting the shot at an early age has become the most important thing to consider to prevent the development of cervical cancer in addition to getting screened regularly.
To know more about what is cervical cancer and how you can keep cervical cancer at bay, read our special e-book on Cervical Cancer.
The HPV vaccine
The HPV vaccine protects against many different types of HPV that often causes cancers of cervix, vagina, and vulva. Some things to consider here are:
- HPV vaccination is generally recommended for ages 11 to 12 years (preteens), but can also be started at age 9. If not vaccinated already, it is also available for everyone through age 26 but not above it. But wait, there’s a catch to this.
- If you’re someone in the age 27-45, you can still get the vaccine by consulting your doctor after discussing some other risk factors related to HPV infection and the possible benefits of vaccination. It still won’t be effective as your body may have been pre exposed to HPV infection previously.
The dose regimen of the HPV vaccine ranges between 2-3 shots given in a period of 6-12 months apart. For people <15 years of age, 2 shots are recommended and for 15 years and older, 3 shots.
One important fact about the HPV vaccine is that it works best if taken before getting exposed to the HPV virus. The reason being that the vaccine only prevents new HPV infections and not the ones which are already existing in your body. Despite getting vaccinated, it is highly recommended to get screened for cervical cancer regularly.
Take the screening test
Speaking of screening tests, there are 2 which can reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer and can find it early. These 2 tests are the Pap smear test and HPV test.
- The Pap smear screening test is done to check for precancers and any cell changes on the cervix surface that might become cancerous if not treated timely.
- The HPV test simply looks for the HPV virus, which is the main culprit of causing those unwanted cell changes in the cervix.
These 2 tests can be done easily by visiting a doctor’s office or clinic. In case you have a low income, then there are many options available to get yourself screened at a low cost or free in several cervical screening awareness campaigns such as CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program and others5. So, find out if you qualify for these and get yourself tested.
Some other noteworthy steps or let’s say tips for preventing the cervical cancer are:
- Smoking less or quitting altogether. You already know how bad it is.
- Practicing safe sex. Using condoms have been associated with a lower rate of getting infected with HPV and also cervical cancer.
- Limiting the number of sexual partners.
What else should we know about the screening tests?
Since we’ve already discussed about the 2 tests above, let us find out some specifics about them. You don’t want to be that person who is all confused, scared or overconfident about it right? Well, how?
Read more here: “Cervical Cancer: Debunking the Myths & Facts”
The pap smear test is done to help the doctor examine your vagina using a plastic or metal instrument named speculum to collect some samples of cells and mucus from the cervix and the area around it. The test results of pap screening mainly confirms whether the shape of the cells is normal or not.
What’s the best age to get screened?
For ages 21-29: Getting tested as early as 21 is considered good. If the test results look normal, then your doctor may schedule the next test after 3 years.
For ages 30-64: Consult with your doctor to discuss which option is right for you:
Only a Pap test: If the results are normal, your doctor may tell you to wait for get tested after 3 years.
Only an HPV test (primary HPV testing): If the HPV test results are normal, your doctor may book the next test after 5 years.
A Pap + HPV test (co-testing): If the results of co-testing are normal, your doctor may book the next test after 5 years.
For ages 65 and above: Your doctor may advise you to stop getting tested if-
- You’ve had normal test results for many years, or
- You’ve had the cervix removed as part of hysterectomy for conditions other than cancer such as fibroids.
Tips to follow before getting a Pap or HPV Test
Keep in mind the following things to avoid if you’re getting tested in the next 2 days.
- If you are on periods. Don’t schedule the screening.
- Don’t douche or rinse the vagina with water or another fluid.
- Avoid using a tampon.
- Don’t have sex or use a birth control cream, foam, or jelly.
- Avoid using a medicine or cream in your vagina.
Interpreting test results
Generally, it takes up to 3 weeks to get your test results. If the results are not completely normal, your doctor may call you for a further screening. Not every abnormal result is deemed to be cancer, so don’t get scared from the go. There are many other reasons as well.
If there is a possibility of the cells getting cancerous or abnormal, your doctor will immediately let you know if you need a treatment. In most cases, this abnormality gets cured. However, it’s very important to follow up and stay protected.
On the flip side, if the test results are normal, your chances of getting the cervical cancer in the coming years is very low. Your doctor may tell you to loosen up for some years before the next test and have some fun. However, don’t neglect it and still go to the doctor for a regular check-up timely.
To summarize, now you can see how easy and hard it could be, if we talk about the risks of cervical cancer and how to prevent it. Time is the key here, remember. So, the next time you feel something isn’t normal about your health or you just don’t feel right down there, stop everything and get yourself tested or even better get vaccinated if you haven’t yet.
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Wang, R., Pan, W., Jin, L., Huang, W., Li, Y., Wu, D., … & Liao, S. (2020). Human papillomavirus vaccine against cervical cancer: Opportunity and challenge. Cancer letters, 471, 88-102.
Perkins, R. B., Guido, R. S., Castle, P. E., Chelmow, D., Einstein, M. H., Garcia, F., … & Schiffman, M. (2020). 2019 ASCCP risk-based management consensus guidelines for abnormal cervical cancer screening tests and cancer precursors. Journal of lower genital tract disease, 24(2), 102.
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Centers for Disease Control. (2002). The national breast and cervical cancer early detection program.
Kessler, T. A. (2017, May). Cervical cancer: prevention and early detection. In Seminars in oncology nursing (Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 172-183). WB Saunders.
Skorstengaard, M., Suhr, J., & Lynge, E. (2019). Condom use to enhance regression of cervical intraepithelial neoplasia: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. Trials, 20(1), 1-7.