In 2022, the American Cancer Society estimated that 14,100 women in the U.S. would be diagnosed with cervical cancer, malignant cancer that affects the cervix at the bottom of the uterus. Fortunately, 2 simple tests can detect precancerous cells in women so that you and your doctor can start treatments before it’s too late.
What Happens During the Tests
Pap Test – also known as a Pap smear, the test looks for abnormal cells on the cervix that may become cancerous if they are not treated appropriately.
HPV Test – This test looks for the human papillomavirus that can cause abnormal cells to change into cancerous cells. Both tests can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic.
During the Pap test, the doctor will use a metal or plastic instrument, called a speculum, to widen your vagina. This helps the doctor visually examine the vagina and the cervix. Your doctor will also collect a few cells and mucus from the cervix and the area around it to be tested at a laboratory.
After a Pap test, the cells will be checked to see if they look normal. For an HPV test, the cells will be tested for HPV.
Preparing for your Pap or HPV Test
When scheduling your Pap or HPV test, be sure not to schedule your test during the days when you expect to have your period.
Once you are 48 hours away from either test, follow these tips:
- Do not douche (rinse the vagina with water or another liquid)
- Do not have sex
- Do not use a tampon
- Do not use a birth control foam, cream or jelly
- Do not use medication or cream in your vagina
Results of the test
When your test results are known (which may take as long as 3 weeks), your doctor will contact you if the results are abnormal. Rest assured, there are many reasons why results may not be normal. It does not necessarily mean you have cancer. Your doctor will explain the necessary steps to take.
Your doctor will contact you if your test results are abnormal and may become cancerous. You will discuss whether or not you should be treated. In most cases, being treated helps to prevent cancer from developing. It is very important to contact your doctor as soon as possible to discuss treatment may be necessary.
If your test results are normal, your chances of getting cervical cancer in the next few years will be very low. Continue to go to your doctor for regular checkups, though you may not have a cervical cancer screening for many years.
When to get screened
The Centers for Disease Control recommends the following testing schedules based on the age of the woman being tested:
21-29 years old
You should start getting regular Pap tests at age 21. If your result is normal, you may be able to wait 3 years until your next one.
30-65 years old
Talk to your doctor to see which of the following option is right for you:
- Pap test only. If your result is normal, you may be able to wait 3 years until your next one.
- HPV test only. This is primary HPV testing. If your result is normal, you may be able to wait 5 years until your next one.
- HPV test and Pap test. This is co-testing. If both results are normal, you may be able to wait 5 years until your next one.
Older than 65
You may not have to get screened anymore if you:
- Have had many years of normal results
- Had your cervix removed as part of a total hysterectomy
If you are over 21 and have never had a Pap and/or HPV test, schedule one immediately. Follow your doctor’s advice for any treatments or follow-up appointments.
Remember, it is better to go to your appointment and discover the real results than to know nothing. Listen to Cindy in this video, who went to an appointment and discovered she had precancerous cells on her cervix. “If I didn’t go to that appointment, I might not be around for my kids,” says Cindy.