by Dr. Matthew Toohey
When my patients ask me how they can live a long, healthy life, I tell them preventive cancer screenings are some of the most important steps they can take. Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women. But there has been a significant drop in death rates thanks to preventive cervical cancer screenings and the HPV vaccine. There are still more than 14,000 cases diagnosed each year, but it is easier to treat when caught early through regular screenings.
What is Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer takes place in the lower part of the uterus, called the cervix. Most forms of cervical cancer are caused by a sexually transmitted infection called HPV (human papillomavirus). Regular screenings are important because early stages of cervical cancer often have no symptoms. Some symptoms of later stage cervical cancer include unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge and pelvic pain.
What is a Pap Test?
A Pap test (or Pap smear) is done during a pelvic exam and is usually performed by an OB-GYN (obstetrician-gynecologist) or a primary care physician (PCP). During the procedure, the health care provider collects cells from the cervix and sends that sample to a lab to test for any abnormalities.
According to the American Cancer Society, women between ages 21 and 29 should get a Pap test every three years. Women who are 30 and older can continue getting a Pap test every three years, get the HPV test every five years, or get both the Pap test and HPV test every five years.
These tests are not painful, but it’s understandable if you’re nervous to get one. You may feel more comfortable having your PCP do the test rather than a specialist, and that is something you can talk to your PCP about. As a PCP myself, I have strong, established relationships with many of my patients who prefer to see me for as much of their medical care as they can.
Do You Still Need Screenings if You’re Vaccinated?
The HPV vaccine helps protect against cervical cancer, since most forms of the disease are associated with HPV. However, it’s still important to get regular screenings for cervical cancer even if you’ve received the HPV vaccine because cervical cancer could have other causes.
The HPV vaccine should be given to children as early as age 9, but teens and young adults ages 15 to 26 can still get vaccinated if they didn’t as children. The vaccine requires two doses at least six months apart for children and three doses for teens and young adults. Adults ages 27 to 45 should discuss the vaccine with their doctor to decide if it’s right for them.
Remember that prevention and early intervention are the best ways to overcome this disease. If you or someone you know has cervical cancer, AmeriHealth New Jersey works with an organization called Thyme Care to offer members and their families personalized services that make it easier to navigate the cancer journey.
Dr. Matthew Toohey is the Network Medical Director for AmeriHealth New Jersey.