Cervical cancer screenings, which typically include a pelvic exam and Pap smear, have significantly reduced the number of cervical cancer incidence and death rates in the United States. These screenings are especially important because symptoms of cervical cancer often go undetected until the disease is more advanced.
“The vast majority of cervical cancers are early stage and often asymptomatic, which is why screenings are important,” says Alexi Wright, MD, MPH, a medical oncologist with the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers.
If cervical cancer develops, symptoms can include:
- Heavy vaginal bleeding
- Bleeding between periods
- Painful intercourse
- Bleeding after intercourse
- Unusual vaginal discharge; often watery or with an unpleasant odor
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, or general pelvic discomfort, it is important to speak with your doctor.
To help prevent the development of cervical cancer, Dana-Farber experts recommend women follow these guidelines:
- Cancer vaccine: The HPV vaccine is recommended for 11- or 12-year-old girls and boys. Vaccination is also recommended for females age 13-26 and males age 13-21 who were not vaccinated when they were younger.
- Onset of sexual activity: If you are immunosuppressed or being treated with immunosuppressant medication, you should have your first Pap test with the onset of sexual activity, and then annually if the tests are normal.
- 21+: If you’re healthy, you should have your first Pap screening test at age 21, and if it’s normal, get one every three years until age 65.
- 30+: If you have had adequate and normal screening in your 20s, you may continue Pap testing every three years if results remain normal, or you may be screened with a combination of a Pap test and a high-risk HPV test every five years, if all results remain normal. Abnormal results usually require further testing. Speak to your doctor about what is recommended in your situation.