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What is cervical cancer?

September is Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month. Gynecological cancer is cancer that starts in one of the female reproductive organs. Cervical cancer is one type of gynecological cancer and fortunately there are screenings to find this cancer early. Cancer can be scary to think about, but getting screenings that your doctor recommends can help find problems early and it can also be a relief to get these screenings over with.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal cells on the cervix grow out of control. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina.

Who should be screened for cervical cancer?

If you have a cervix, you may need cervical cancer screening. Screening will depend on many things.

  • Ages 21 to 29: Screening options for these ages include:
    • A Pap test. If your results are normal, you can wait 3 years to have another test.
    • An HPV test beginning at age 25. If your results are negative, you can wait 5 years to have another test.
  • Ages 30 to 64: Screening options for these ages include:
    • A Pap test. If your results are normal, you can wait 3 years to have another test.
    • An HPV test. If your results are negative, you can wait 5 years to have another test.
    • A Pap test and an HPV test. If your results are normal, you can wait 5 years to be tested again.
  • Ages 65 and older: If you are age 65 or older and you've always had normal screening results, you may not need screening. Talk to your doctor.

How is cervical cancer diagnosed?

If cervical cancer is suspected, your doctor will ask about your medical history and do a physical exam. This may include a pelvic exam and cervical cancer screening. For the screening test, the doctor scrapes a small sample of cells from the surface of the cervix. Tests to confirm a diagnosis of cervical cancer include:

  • Colposcopy and cervical biopsy. This test can find out whether and where cancer cells are on the surface of the cervix.
  • Endocervical biopsy (or curettage). This test is done to find out whether cancer cells are in the cervical canal.
  • Cone biopsy. This type of biopsy may be done to remove cervical tissue for examination under a microscope.

Preventing cervical cancer

You can treat early cervical cell changes (dysplasia), which can reduce your risk for cervical cancer. You can also reduce your risk for abnormal cell changes.

  • Have regular cervical cancer screening. Even if you've had the HPV vaccine, you may need regular screening.
    • The recommended screening schedule is based on your age and things that increase your risk. Talk to your doctor about how often to be tested.
  • If you smoke, take steps to quit.
    • Cigarette smoking is associated with a higher risk for cervical cancer.
  • Get the HPV vaccine.
    • If you have not been vaccinated for HPV, ask your doctor if getting the vaccine is right for you. The HPV vaccine protects against the types of human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause cervical cancer.
  • Reduce your risk of a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
    • Preventing an STI, including HPV, is easier than treating an infection after it occurs. HPV infection usually doesn't cause symptoms, so you or your partner may not know that you are infected.

If you are a MaineHealth patient, you can use MyChart to check when your last Pap-test was. You can also request an appointment on MyChart and send your doctor a message if you have any questions about your health.

© 2016-2021 Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.

Cervical Cancer Services

MaineHealth offers complete services for all gynecological cancers, including cervical cancer.

What is a Pap test?

Pap tests screen for cervical cancer, or cancer of the cervix. Pap tests are done by a gynecologist, primary care doctor or family health care provider.