It's Cervical Cancer Awareness Month -- Here's What You Need To Know

by Melissa L. Fenton
Keith Brofsky / Getty

“Can you scoot your butt down the table a little more?”

Hearing that sentence (as well as freezing cold stirrups) is an all too familiar scene for women, and one too many of us try to avoid at all costs, even to the risk of our own health.

But as unnerving and uncomfortable a yearly trip to the gynecologist can be, it offers women access to one of the most common and accurate diagnostic screenings in the medical field — a Pap test.

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness month, and if you’ve been putting off your yearly gyn visit and impending Pap smear, you need to make your appointment STAT.


Because each year in the United States, there are 12,000 cases of cervical cancer and 4,000 deaths from the disease. But when detected early, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable cancers. And because Pap smears are able to detect early signs of cancer by catching changes in the cervix and detecting pre-cancerous cells, this screening has become vital to reducing overall cervical cancer deaths. Over the past four decades, death rates from cervical cancer have fallen by 50% as more women are having both a Pap smear, and an HPV (Human Papillomavirus Virus) test at higher rates.

Here are some other facts you need to know about cervical cancer:

1. You should get a Pap smear and an HPV test.

In addition to a Pap smear, women over 30 should also have the HPV test, because almost 99% of cervical cancers are caused by this virus. HPV is an extremely common sexually-transmitted disease, with 79 million Americans infected. In fact, HPV is so common that, according to the CDC, almost every person who is sexually-active will get HPV at some time in their life if they don’t get the HPV vaccine. In many cases, HPV can remain dormant and symptom-free for years, and many not cause health concerns, but the HPV test can detect the high-risk types of HPV that are commonly found in cervical cancer. One specific type of HPV test has recently been approved for use as a primary cervical cancer screening for women age 25 and older, followed by a Pap test for women with certain results.

2. How often should I get a Pap?

All women 21 and over should undergo yearly pelvic exams, and women 21 to 29 should get a Pap test every three years, as long as their results remain normal. Women 30 to 65 years old should get a Pap test combined with an HPV test every five years as long as their results remain normal. Alternatively, women 30 and over may opt for just a Pap test every three years.

3. What about the HPV vaccine?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved three HPV vaccines, and The American Cancer Society recommends that girls and boys begin getting the vaccine series at age 11 or 12, because at that age, it produces a better immune response. If you or your child missed that window, the recommendations are as follows: females ages 13-26 and males ages 13-21 should be vaccinated. Men can also get the vaccination up to age 26. However, the vaccine is not as effective in lowering cancer risk in men or women after age 21.

4. Symptoms to look for…

That’s the thing, cervical cancer symptoms can be non-existent, making Pap and HPV screenings even more important. Many times the disease does not cause pain or irregular bleeding, so there would be no telltale signs something may be wrong. Of course if you have any changes in your cycle, pain, or anything unordinary, see your gynecologist right away.

5. Even if you don’t need birth control, get the Pap test.

If you’re not in a heterosexual relationship, you’re 25% less likely to get regular Pap smears. Researchers believe the link between birth control needs among heterosexuals means they have more frequent gynecological visits, hence more Pap smears.

6. As long as you have a cervix…

You need to keep getting Pap tests no matter your age, regardless of whether you have gone through menopause or not, and even post menopausal women still need Pap screenings. If you have undergone a hysterectomy with cervix removal, this does not apply to you.

7. Before your Pap test appointment, do (and don’t do) these things.

The following preparations can help make your Pap test as accurate as possible:

• Try not to schedule an appointment for a time during your menstrual period. The best time is at least 5 days after your menstrual period stops.

• Don’t use tampons, birth-control foams or jellies, other vaginal creams, moisturizers, or lubricants, or vaginal medicines for 2 to 3 days before the Pap test.

• Don’t douche for 2 to 3 days before the Pap test.

• Don’t have vaginal sex for 2 days before the Pap test.

Don’t put it off any longer ladies. Get yourself to the gynecologist, scoot on down that table, put those legs into the cold stirrups, and save your life. For more information on Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, visit the National Cervical Cancer Coalition.