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preventive health services

Colorectal Cancer Health Screenings

Why is this important?

Screening for cervical cancer can identify cancer at an early stage when early treatment is possible and more successful. When cervical cancer is found early, it is highly treatable and associated with long survival and good quality of life. When cancer starts in the cervix, it is called cervical cancer. The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus. The cervix connects the vagina (birth canal) to the upper part of the uterus. The uterus (or womb) is where a baby grows when a woman is pregnant.

All women are at risk for cervical cancer. It occurs most often in women over age 30. Each year, about 12,000 women in the United States get cervical cancer and about 4,000 women die from it.

Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer. HPV is a common virus that is passed from one person to another during sex. At least half of sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives, but few women will get cervical cancer.

The most important thing you can do to help prevent cervical cancer is to have regular screening tests starting at age 21.

When to get screened

You should start getting regular Pap tests at age 21. The Pap test, which screens for cervical cancer, is one of the most reliable and effective cancer screening tests available. The only cancer for which the Pap test screens is cervical cancer. It does not screen for ovarian, uterine, vaginal, or vulvar cancers. If your Pap test results are normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait three years until your next Pap test.

If you are 21 to 65 years old, it is important for you to continue getting a Pap test as directed by your doctor — even if you think you are too old to have a child or are not having sex anymore.

What are the risks?

When you turn 30, you have a choice:

  • If your test results are normal, get a Pap test every three years. OR
  • Get both a Pap test and an HPV test every five years.
  • You can stop getting screened if:
    • ​You’re older than 65 and have had normal Pap test results for many years.
    • Your cervix was removed during surgery for a non-cancerous condition like fibroids.

It can take as long as three weeks to receive your Pap test results. If your test shows that something might not be normal, your doctor will contact you and figure out how best to follow up.

If your Pap test results show cells that are not normal and may become cancer, your doctor will let you know if you need to be treated. In most cases, treatment prevents cervical cancer from developing. The number of individuals needed to be screened to find one case of cervical cancer and avoid dying is 1,150.

What increases my risk for cervical cancer?

Almost all cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that can be passed from one person to another during sex. There are many types of HPV. Some HPV types can cause changes on a woman’s cervix that can lead to cervical cancer over time, while other types can cause genital or skin warts.

HPV is so common that most people get it at some time in their lives. HPV usually causes no symptoms so you can’t tell that you have it. For most women, HPV will go away on its own; however, if it does not, there is a chance that over time it may cause cervical cancer.

Other things can increase your risk of cervical cancer—

  • Smoking
  • Having HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or another condition that makes it hard for your body to fight off health problems.
  • Using birth control pills for a long time (five or more years).
  • Having given birth to three or more children.
  • Having several sexual partners.

How does the cervical cancer screening or test work?

During the Pap test, the doctor will use a plastic or metal instrument, called a speculum, to widen your vagina. This helps the doctor examine the vagina and the cervix, and collect a few cells and mucus from the cervix and the area around it. The cells are then placed on a slide or in a bottle of liquid and sent to a laboratory. The laboratory will check to be sure that the cells are normal.

If you get the HPV test along with the Pap test, the cells collected during the Pap test will be tested for HPV at the laboratory. Talk with your doctor, nurse, or other health care professional about whether the HPV test is right for you.

When you have a Pap test, the doctor may also perform a pelvic exam, checking your uterus, ovaries, and other organs to make sure there are no problems. There are times when your doctor may perform a pelvic exam without giving you a Pap test. Ask your doctor which tests you are having, if you are unsure.

Two tests can help prevent cervical cancer —

  • The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers, cell changes on the cervix that may become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately. You should start getting Pap tests at age 21.
  • The human papillomavirus (HPV) test looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes.

If your Pap test results are normal, your chance of getting cervical cancer in the next few years is very low. For that reason, your doctor may tell you that you will not need another Pap test for as long as three years. If you are 30 years old or older, you may choose to have an HPV test along with the Pap test. If both test results are normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait five years to have your next Pap test. But you should still go to the doctor regularly for a checkup. Screening tests can find abnormal cells so they can be treated before they turn into cancer.

  • The Pap test looks for changes in cells on the cervix that could turn into cancer if left untreated.
  • The human papillomavirus (HPV) test looks for the virus that causes these cell changes.

Frequently asked questions about cervical cancer screening

How often do I need to have a Pap test?
For women aged 21 to 65, it is important to continue getting a Pap test as directed by your doctor — even if you think you are too old to have a child or are not having sex anymore. However, if you are older than 65 and have had normal Pap test results for several years, or if you have had your cervix removed as part of a total hysterectomy for a non-cancerous condition, like fibroids, your doctor may tell you that you do not need to have a Pap test anymore.

Most women don’t need a Pap test every year!

Have your first Pap test when you’re 21. If your test results are normal, you can wait three years for your next Pap test. HPV tests aren’t recommended for screening women under 30.

What can I do to reduce my risk?
One of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of cervical cancer is to be vaccinated for the virus associated with cervical cancer, HPV. Two HPV vaccines are available to protect females against the types of HPV that cause most cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. Both vaccines are recommended for 11- and 12-yearold girls, and for females 13 through 26 years of age who did not get any or all of the shots when they were younger. These vaccines also can be given to girls as young as 9 years of age. It is recommended that females get the same vaccine brand for all three doses, whenever possible. It is important to note that women who are vaccinated against HPV still need to have regular Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer.

Are there any lifestyle habits I can change to lower my risk for cervical cancer?

These things may also help lower your risk for cervical cancer—

  • Don’t smoke.
  • Use condoms during sex.
  • Limit your number of sexual partners.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Early on, cervical cancer may not cause signs and symptoms. Advanced cervical cancer may cause bleeding or discharge from the vagina that is not normal for you, such as bleeding after sex. If you have any of these signs, see your doctor. They may be caused by something other than cancer, but the only way to know is to see your doctor.

How to prepare for your pap test

You should not schedule your Pap test for a time when you are having your period. If you are going to have a Pap test in the next two days —

  • You should not douche (rinse the vagina with water or another fluid).
  • You should not use a tampon.
  • You should not have sex.
  • You should not use a birth control foam, cream, or jelly.
  • You should not use a medicine or cream in your vagina.

How is cervical cancer diagnosed and treated?

If your doctor says that you have cervical cancer, ask to be referred to a gynecologic oncologist — a doctor who has been trained to treat cancers of a woman’s reproductive system. This doctor will work with you to create a treatment plan.

Cervical cancer is treated in several ways. It depends on the kind of cervical cancer and how far it has spread. Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.