Annual well woman visits are an important part of prevention and overall health. They help detect and sometimes prevent health conditions, such as cervical cancer.
“Cervical cancer is totally preventable,” says Courtney Payne, PA-C, IF, a certified physician assistant with ProMedica Physicians Gynecology Oncology. “As long as we stay on top of routine screenings where a provider can assure that the cervix looks normal and catch abnormalities ahead of time, we can make sure it’s caught really early and sometimes fix those changes, such as precancer, before it turns into cancer.”
Understanding Pap Tests and HPV Tests
Like other cancers, cervical cancer develops when abnormal or damaged cells continue to grow and multiply. Gynecological exams help to catch these abnormalities early, sometimes before cancer even develops.
A Pap test collects sample cells from the cervix, which are then sent to the lab to check for abnormalities. A Human papillomavirus (HPV) test screens for HPV, a sexually transmitted infection that might lead to cervical cancer. Few women with HPV get cervical cancer, but nearly all cervical cancer is caused by this virus.
Not sure which test is right for you? The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends the following screenings guidelines:
- Under 21: No screening.
- 21-29 years old: Pap test every 3 years.
- 30-65: Pap test every 3 years OR HPV test every 5 years OR combined Pap test and HPV test every 5 years.
- 65+ No screening following prior adequate screening.
When it comes to screening, the most important thing is talking with your healthcare provider to make sure your screenings are up to date.
“Unfortunately, we’re seeing that a lot of ladies are putting off their routine screenings, whether that’s a physical exam, a Pap test, mammograms or colonoscopies,” says Payne. “We’re getting in this mode where we feel we need to stay home more often and we’re putting off office visits. Medical professionals are really trying to encourage people to have those routine screenings because they can be preventive and help eliminate things like cervical cancer.”
Protecting Your Cervical Health
In addition to annual visits and regular cervical cancer screenings, Payne recommends talking with your doctor about the HPV vaccination.
She explains, “The vaccine helps to prevent the HPV virus, which causes most cervix cancers. Up to 90-95% of cervix cancers are HPV driven. If we can vaccinate against that virus, it can really eliminate or reduce the chance of that virus causing problems down the road.”
When cervical cancer is found early, the chances for recovery are high. Screenings are especially important because cervical cancer may not always cause symptoms, especially in the beginning stages. Some women may experience pelvic pain, pain with intercourse, abnormal bleeding, or bleeding with intercourse. In advanced cases, women may notice urinary or bowel movement changes, shortness of breath, or swelling.
If you can’t remember when your last pelvic exam or Pap test was, check in with your OB/Gyn.
“As uncomfortable as the exam may be, it is absolutely necessary,” says Payne. “Especially as cervical cancer is a cancer we can prevent, taking a few minutes to take care of yourself is so important.”