Screening tests for cervical cancer are super important. Here’s why.

Young woman wearing blue shirt is sitting on an exam table in a doctor’s office talking with her gynecologist.


Regular screenings, including the Pap smear and HPV test, can prevent cervical cancer.


By Linus Chuang, MD, System Chair of Women’s Health Services, Nuvance Health


If you could prevent cancer, would you take the necessary steps? Unlike the majority of cancers, cervical cancer is preventable. Annual checkups with your gynecologist and regular Pap smears and HPV tests can help prevent cervical cancer. These tests can detect precancerous cells before they turn into cancer.


Overall rates of cervical cancer in the United States were already declining because of screenings, and declined even more since the introduction of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in 2006. The HPV vaccine protects against HPV, the very common sexually transmitted infection that can cause cervical cancer. However, recent studies have shown rising rates of advanced cervical cancer, which may indicate some women are not getting the HPV vaccine or having routine screenings with their gynecologist



Keep reading to find out two why cervical cancer screenings are important for your health and well-being. Whether you have routine cancer screenings or not, it is also important to know the signs of cervical cancer and when to see your gynecologist.


Why are cervical cancer screenings important?


The cervix is located at the lower end of the uterus and connects it with the vagina. Cervical cancer happens when cells grow out of control in the cervix.


A screening is a medical checkup when you have no symptoms. A cervical cancer screening usually includes a pelvic exam and tests.


It is important to have the health of your cervix checked by a qualified women’s health specialist, such as a gynecologist. A gynecologist can detect any changes in your cervix and help treat the problem. For example, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are common medical conditions that affect the cervix. 



Speaking of STIs, HPV is very common. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 42 million people have strains of HPV that cause other diseases, and about 13 million people get it each year — including adults and teens.


Further, HPV causes about 36,000 cases of cancer in men and women every year in the United States. Some HPV infections can cause cervical, vaginal or vulva cancer in women; penile cancer in men; and anal and oropharyngeal cancer in men and women.


What are the two important cervical cancer screenings?


There are two main cervical cancer screenings: The Pap smear (or Pap test) and the HPV test. Both tests can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early before it has spread and when it is easier to treat.



What is the difference between a Pap smear, HPV test and pelvic exam to screen for cervical cancer?


Pap smear


A Pap smear can detect abnormal cells, or precancerous cells in your cervix. The precancerous cells could develop into cancer years later if left untreated. Precancerous cells do not cause symptoms.


HPV test


An HPV test looks for HPV, which can cause changes to your cervix. According to the CDC, HPV is a risk factor for cervical cancer because it causes about 90% of cases. HPV usually does not cause symptoms, which is why it is important to be tested. Genital warts are the most common sign of HPV if symptoms do occur.


Pelvic exam


Your gynecologist will check your reproductive and sexual health during a routine physical exam. Called a well-woman visit, your gynecologist will examine your vagina, cervix and uterus. They can see visible sexually transmitted infections and detect possible uterine fibroids during a pelvic exam.



How do doctors check if you have cervical cancer?


Your gynecologist will perform a Pap smear and HPV test the same way. During an office exam, they will use a speculum to look inside your vagina and then use a swab to collect a sample of cells from your cervix. 


Gynecologists will perform Pap smears and HPV tests at the same time as a pelvic exam. Sometimes, you might only be due for a pelvic exam and not these tests. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends women have well-woman visits with a gynecologist every year. Keep reading to find out when you should have cervical cancer screenings.


When should you have a Pap smear or HPV test?


Current U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) guidelines recommend women start Pap tests at age 21, and then every three years if the results are normal.


Women 30 to 65 years old should have a Pap test every three years, and HPV test every five years. Or, you can have co-testing (both HPV and Pap test) every five years.


Ask your primary care provider or gynecologist about cervical cancer screenings and how often you should have these important tests.



What happens if your Pap smear results are abnormal?


If your Pap test is abnormal, it might mean you have precancerous cells that could turn into cancer if they are not treated. The next steps may include a procedure to remove the precancerous cells and prevent cervical cancer from developing.


What happens if you test positive for HPV?


If an HPV test is positive, it means you have a strain of HPV that may increase your risk of developing cervical cancer — it does not mean you have cancer or will get it. Your doctor will determine the best next steps for you, which may include close surveillance and repeat HPV tests. Your doctor may also recommend having a colposcopy procedure to examine your cervix further and possibly take a biopsy.


What are the signs of cervical cancer?


Even if you get routine screenings, it is always good to know the signs of cervical cancer, so you know when to see your doctor for anything unusual. Early detection is important when it comes to treating cancer and having a good outcome.



Cervical cancer usually does not cause symptoms when it is in an early stage. Advanced-stage cervical cancer may cause bleeding or discharge from the vagina that is not normal for you. For example, bleeding after menopause or after sex. Cervical cancer may also cause pelvic pain or pain during sex. See your gynecologist or primary care provider if you experience these symptoms. These symptoms may not be from cancer, but it is still important for you to see a healthcare provider.



The bottom line: Your wellness matters and that includes your cervical health. Regular screenings can help prevent cervical cancer from developing. See your gynecologist for Pap or HPV tests every three to five years depending on your age and test results. While you can feel in control of your cervical health through screenings, it is always useful to know the signs of cancer, so you know when to get medical care.