Cervical Cancer Screenings: Five Things You Need to Know

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Ursula Matulonis, MD

Ursula Matulonis, MD

Approximately 10,000-11,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. But with women having regular cervical cancer screenings, incidence and death rates from the disease have decreased by at least 80 percent in the U.S.

“Cervical cancer in the U.S. has become less of a frequently diagnosed cancer because of the institution of the Pap smear,” says Ursula Matulonis, MD, medical director of Gynecologic Oncology at the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber.

As January marks Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, here are five important questions about cervical cancer screening:

1. What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is the most common cause of cervical cancer. Other possible risk factors include having many sexual partners, smoking cigarettes and having first sexual intercourse at a young age.

2. What does a cervical cancer screening include? 

Physicians typically conduct a pelvic exam and Pap smear (also known as a Pap test). During a Pap smear, a physician will use a small brush to gently scrape the cervix, collecting cells that can be viewed under a microscope and studied for signs of cancer.

3. How often should you get screened?

Screening frequency depends on a woman’s age and health history:

  • Ages 18-34 – A woman should have a pelvic exam every one to three years. If exam results are normal for three consecutive years, a pap test can be performed every one to three years. If a Pap test comes back with abnormal results, the physician may choose to conduct the test every year.
  • Ages 35-49 – A pelvic exam and pap test should be done every one to three years, based on previous results and a physician’s recommendation
  • Ages 50+ – A pelvic exam and pap test should be done every one to three years, based on the physician’s recommendation. After age 65, women who have had normal screenings during their lifetime may choose to forego regular screenings, but should consult with their physician on this decision.

4. What happens if I have an abnormal Pap test result?

If abnormal cells are found, doctors can use laboratory tests to check a patient’s DNA for certain types of HPV infection. A doctor may also choose to conduct a biopsy of cervical tissue to check for signs of cancer.

5. How is cervical cancer treated?

If the cancer is found early on and the tumors are small, surgeons may be able to remove all of the cancer with a total hysterectomy, which removes the cervix and the uterus.

If the cancer has spread to take up more room in the pelvis, radiation therapy and chemotherapy may be used.

Patients may also choose to take part in a clinical trial. Dana-Farber currently has several clinical trials open for cervical cancer patients and the National Cancer Institute maintains a list of clinical trials at clinicaltrials.gov.

For more information on cervical cancer, visit the website for the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farberor view this video with Ursula Matulonis, MD.

One comment

  1. With January being Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, I can’t help but think how fortunate it is that researchers were able to develop such an effective vaccine for HPV. Cervical cancer is a disease that doesn’t produce too many noticeable symptoms on it’s own. However, even with better screening methods and the vaccine, there are still nearly 12,000 women in the US who will be diagnosed over the course of the year. I think that we can definitely continue to improve this reported number over the next several years.

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