Cancer Services Program

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Bureau of Chronic Disease Control
New York State Department of Health
150 Broadway, Suite 350
Albany, NY 12204-0678

Frequently Asked Questions About Cervical Cancer

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is cancer that starts in a woman's cervix. The cervix is the lower, thin opening of the uterus that connects the vagina (or birth canal) to the uterus. Cervical cancer grows slowly over time and usually starts with abnormal changes to the cells on the cervix, known as dysplasia. For more information about the cervix and cervical cancer, visit

Who gets cervical cancer?

Any woman can get cervical cancer. It occurs most often in women over 30 years old. Women who are not screened or have not been screened in a long time could have cervical cancer and not know it. Cervical cancer is most often found in women who have not had a Pap test in more than five years or have never had a Pap test. The Pap test is the main screening test for cervical cancer; Pap tests can identify cells on the cervix that may become cancerous.

What causes cervical cancer?

Nearly all cervical cancer is caused the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States; it is estimated that more than half of adults will get HPV. There are 120 different types of HPV, over 30 of which can infect the genitals. Genital types of HPV are either low-risk or high-risk based on how likely it is that they may cause cervical or other gynecological cancers; HPV types 16 and 18 cause 70% of cervical cancer cases.

Most often HPV will go away on its own, but if it does not, it could cause cervical cancer. Many women will have an HPV infection at some point in their lives, but few will get cervical cancer. In addition to HPV infection, there are other factors that can increase the chances of getting cervical cancer. These include:

  • Not having regular Pap tests
  • Not following up with your health care provider if you have had a Pap test result that is not normal
  • Having HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, or another condition that makes it hard for your body to fight off health problems
  • Smoking

For more information about HPV and the HPV vaccine visit

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Early on, there are usually no symptoms. The longer a person has cervical cancer without treatment, the more likely they will have symptoms. Some of the symptoms of advanced cervical cancer can include:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Unusually heavy vaginal discharge
  • Painful intercourse
  • Painful urination
  • Bleeding after intercourse, between periods or after a pelvic exam

If you have any of these symptoms, you should talk to your health care provider. These symptoms may be caused by something else; the only way to know for sure is to see your health care provider.

Why should I be screened for cervical cancer?

Screening tests can prevent cervical cancer or find it early, when it is easily treated. In the United States, the Pap test has reduced cervical cancer rates by more than 70%.

What screening tests are done for cervical cancer?

There are two tests that screen for cervical cancer:

  • Papanicolaou test (known as a Pap test or Pap Smear)
    A Pap test looks at cells on the cervix and is often done during a routine pelvic exam. It looks for changes on the cervix that could become cervical cancer if not treated. If your Pap test results show cells that are not normal and may become cancer, your health care provider will contact you for follow-up. There are many reasons why Pap test results might not be normal. It usually does not mean you have cancer.
  • HPV test
    The HPV test looks for the types of the virus that cause most cases of cervical cancer, the high-risk types. The HPV test can be done at the same time as the Pap test using either the same sample of cells or a second sample taken right after the Pap test. A positive result for high-risk HPV means that you should be followed closely to make sure that abnormal cells do not develop.

How often should a woman be screened for cervical cancer?

Women should start getting screened for cervical cancer at age 21. Talk with your health care provider about how often you should be screened for cervical cancer. Women who may no longer be having sex or who may feel too old to have a child should still have regular Pap tests. Cervical cancer is most often found in women who have not been screened with the Pap test in more than five years or have never been screened at all. Women who are not screened or have not been screened in a long time could have cervical cancer and not know it.

What can I do to prevent cervical cancer?

Where can I go for a FREE cervical cancer screening?

Free cervical cancer screening is available for eligible, uninsured and underinsured New York residents through New York State Cancer Services Program. To get more information or to be connected to a Cancer Services Program near you, please call 1-866-442-CANCER or visit the Cancer Services Program website.

Information adapted from CDC Cervical Cancer Fact Sheet (2009) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Publication #99-9123 available online