Cervical cancer occurs when cancerous tissues form inside the cervix. The cervix is the organ that joins a woman’s vagina and her uterus. This type of cancer is slow growing and can be challenging to diagnose because symptoms are not always visible. Cervical cancer is most always caused by HPV, which is the human papilloma virus. While cervical cancer sounds very scary, and it should certainly be a serious consideration, it is also the easiest cancer to prevent in females.
There are two tests that can be used to screen for cervical cancer: a Pap smear and an HPV test. The Pap smear is used to find pre-cancers or other cell changes in the cervix that could become cervical cancer. The HPV test looks for the presence of the virus that causes the cell mutations that lead to cancer. If both tests come back negative, it means that the risk for cancer is minimal.
Collecting the cell samples happens at the same time. The doctor will insert a metal or plastic speculum into the vagina. Once the passage way is widened, the doctor will insert a swab the collect mucus and cells from the cervix. These will be sent to a lab for testing. Women should begin testing by the age of 21, though earlier testing is necessary if a woman is sexually active.
For quality results, if you are preparing for a Pap smear, there are some precautions you should keep in mind:
- Make sure to schedule your appointment when you are not having your period
- Do not douche within two days of your exam
- Do not have sex within 24 hours of the test
- Do not use spermicidal jelly or other birth control creams
- Avoid any other foreign liquids being inserted into your vagina
- Try to go into your screening relaxed – it will make the speculum insertion more comfortable
Once the test is complete, it may take up to three weeks for the results to come back. If the Pap smear is irregular or inconclusive, the doctor will contact you for second test or a follow up. Just because a test doesn’t come back as normal does not mean that you have cancer. There are many factors that can contribute to an abnormal Pap. If the doctor does find pre-cancers, the treatment provided should prevent cervical cancer from forming. And, when the doctor calls for a follow up or with results, make sure to speak with them immediately.