In honor of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, we shared the basics on cervical cancer and HPV last week.
Now, we’re exploring what preventative measures you can take to help lower your risk of cervical cancer or HPV.
HPV & Cervical Cancer Prevention
Since certain high risk forms of HPV are more likely to develop into cervical cancer, it’s important that you get tested for HPV regularly. That way, you can get treated for the cellular changes that HPV can cause. Your HPV test will be conducted at the same time as a Pap test. A small, soft brush is used to collect cervical cells, or in some cases, samples are drawn right from the Pap smear samples.
If you are over 30, combining your HPV test and Pap test will help you detect abnormal cervical cell changes better than taking either test alone. If both tests come back normal, you usually don’t have to be tested for another three years.
Since HPV is common but cervical cancer is very rare in women under 30, the HPV test is actually not recommended for women in this age group. Usually, women under 30 are able to fight off HPV without treatment; adding the HPV test to your Pap smear can thus lead to unnecessary tests and treatments.
Preventing Cervical Cancer
Although cervical cancer is the second most common form of cancer in women around the world, it’s also among the most preventable. In the US, cervical cancer deaths are declining by around 2% each year, mostly due to preventative measures.
The most important preventative measure against cervical cancer is getting regular Pap smears. Visiting your gynecologist for this screening can help detect abnormalities in the cervix before they have a chance to progress. The earlier your treatment, the better.
In your Pap test, your doctor will look for abnormal changes in the cervix by collecting squamous and glandular cervical cells from the endocervix and ectoxervix. The samples are examined in a lab to identify any changes that could indicate cervical cancer.
How Often Do I Need to Get a Pap Smear?
Many women who develop cervical cancer haven’t ever had a Pap test or haven’t had one in the past 3-5 years. That’s why it’s key to know how often to get a Pap smear. The necessary frequency of your pap smears depends on your age and health history. You can speak with your healthcare provider about how often you should be tested, but usually these guidelines work for most women:
- Women 21 – 29 years old should get a Pap test every 3 years.
- Women 30 – 64 should get a Pap test + HPV test every 5 years (or a Pap test alone every 3 years)
- Women 65+ can discuss how often to get a Pap test with their doctors — but keep in mind almost 20% of cervical cancer diagnoses are made in women over 65, so continuing your regular Pap test until 70 is advisable.
Discuss the necessary frequency of your Pap tests if any of the following applies to you:
- You are immune-compromised due to chemotherapy, steroid use, or organ transplant.
- You have had abnormal Pap test results or cervical cancer previously.
- You are HIV-positive.
- Your mother had diethylstilbestrol exposure when pregnant.
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