Cervical cancer is a disease in which cancer cells grow in the cervix. Fortunately, cervical cancer can be prevented if precancerous cell changes are detected and treated early.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the primary cause of nearly all cases of cervical cancer. HPV can be passed from one person to another through sexual contact. In most cases, the HPV virus is harmless and causes no symptoms. In fact, many young women who become infected with HPV are able to clear the infection through their own immune systems. However, certain high-risk types of HPV can cause cervical lesions. Over time, these may develop into cancer if untreated.
The Pap smear is used detect cancerous and precancerous cervical lesions. Unfortunately, the Pap smear has been associated with false negative results in some cases. In a false negative, the test indicates the pap smear is normal when, in fact, there is an abnormality. Women with abnormal results need further testing.
The HPV test can be used in conjunction with the Pap test. The test determines the presence or absence of HPV and whether or not the HPV type present is the type that is associated with cancer.
The HPV test
The HPV test is collected similar to a Pap smear. A cervical brush or other collection device is inserted into the cervix to collect cells for testing. This sample is then sent to the lab for evaluation.
A negative result means that high-risk, cancer-causing types of HPV were not detected. Therefore, your risk of developing high-grade cervical disease before your next routine visit is extremely low.
A positive HPV result may mean an increased risk of developing cervical cancer if the precancerous type is present. In this case, further examination will be needed in order to determine whether your cervix shows pre-cancerous or cancerous changes. If no changes are detected, you will be closely monitored to make sure that any changes are detected as early as possible. If precancerous changes are detected, you should know that several highly effective treatment options are available.
General recommendations for cervical cancer screening:
- Between the ages of 21-65 years
- Stopping in women older than 65 with normal testing in the past 10 years
- Ages 21-29 years—Pap smear every three years without HPV testing
- Ages 30-65 years—Pap smear and HPV testing every five years or Pap smear alone every three years
Each woman has individual circumstances and risk factors. Talk to your doctor about how often you should be screened for cervical cancer.
Questions to ask your doctor
To find out whether HPV testing is right for you, be sure to ask your doctor the following questions on your next doctor visit:
- Am I a candidate for an HPV test as part of my cervical cancer screening program?
- Do you provide HPV testing as a follow-up to help clarify inconclusive Pap test results?
- If I have an inconclusive Pap test result, can you ask the lab to perform an automatic HPV test from the same Pap sample?
- Will my insurance cover the HPV test?
- Can I talk to you about questions I have about HPV and cervical cancer?