Cervical cancer occurs when normal cells of the cervix, the donut-shaped opening at the bottom of your uterus, become abnormal and grow out of control. Most women who have routine screening for cervical cancer will have their cancers found early. Early identification and treatment give the best opportunity for the complete removal of this cancer.
Many women do not have any symptoms of cervical cancer in its early stages. When symptoms do occur, they include bleeding between your menstrual cycles, after sexual intercourse, and after menopause. There are other causes of unusual vaginal bleeding, but any time you have unexpected bleeding you should discuss this with your healthcare provider.
The test for cervical cancer is probably familiar to you; it is commonly called a Pap smear or Pap test. Additionally, there is a test for a virus that can increase the risk of cervical cancer developing. This virus is called HPV or the human papillomavirus. These tests are usually done together.
For both tests, the healthcare provider looks inside your vagina using a device called a speculum. This allows the provider to see the cervix. A small brush is used to collect cells from the surface of the cervix and the cervical opening. The test may be mildly uncomfortable but generally is not painful. The sample is placed in a special vial of fluid and sent to the lab to check for abnormal cells and HPV virus.
Cervical cancer screening begins in women aged 21 and older and continues until age 65. Women over the age of 65 may be recommended to continue testing based on their personal history but otherwise can opt-out at this age. Depending on your age, between 21 and 65, and any previous testing you have had, your Healthcare provider may order just a Pap test or a Pap test plus the HPV virus test. These test results come back in about a week. For most women, your test results will be normal.
If your tests are abnormal, you will be referred to a gynecologic provider for a test called a colposcopy. This test uses a magnifying lens to examine your cervix and allows the provider to remove a tiny piece of abnormal tissue for further testing. These tests may show that you have cervical cancer or can show abnormal cells that are not cancerous. Abnormal cells can sometimes have a risk of turning into cancer. If you have abnormal, precancerous cells you will be recommended to have a repeat Pap smear in one year. If you are found to have cervical cancer, then treatment will be guided by your individual health needs.
Almost all cervical cancer is caused by the HPV virus, which is spread by skin contact and sex. There is a vaccine available that can prevent HPV infection. It is available for both men and women and works best if it is given before the person becomes sexually active but is still helpful in preventing HPV and infections if the person has already begun having sex. HPV infection in men can lead to genital warts and a risk of transmission to all their sexual partners.
Block Island Health Services practitioners are all skilled at obtaining Pap smears and guiding you through any needed follow-up care. BIHS has access to a grant program that pays for cancer screening for women without insurance, so you do not need health insurance to have this test performed. Schedule an appointment with any of our healthcare providers, including Dr. Warcup and nurse practitioners Laurie Anderson and Sarah Manuppelli. We welcome you to use BIHS for your cervical cancer screening tests.