Frequently Asked Questions About Cervical Cancer
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer 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 (womb). Cervical cancer grows slowly over time and usually starts with abnormal changes to the cells on the cervix, known as dysplasia.
Who gets cervical cancer?
Any woman can get cervical cancer. It occurs most often in women over 30 years old.
What causes cervical cancer?
Nearly all cervical cancer is caused by 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 sexually active adults will get HPV. There are 120 different types of HPV, more than 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.
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. For more information about HPV and the HPV vaccine visit http://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/human_papillomavirus/
In addition to HPV infection, there are other factors that can increase the chances of getting cervical cancer. These include:
- Not having regular cervical cancer screening tests
- Not following up with your health care provider if you have had an abnormal result from a screening test
- Having HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, or another condition that makes it hard for your body to fight off health problems
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
Early on, there are usually no symptoms of cervical cancer. 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.
What should I know about screening for cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is the easiest gynecological cancer to prevent with regular screening tests and follow-up. Over the last 30 years, the cervical cancer death rate has gone down by more than 50%, mostly due to the Pap test. 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.
There are two screening tests that can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early:
- Papanicolaou test (known as a Pap test or Pap Smear)
A Pap test is a procedure done in a doctor's office in which cells are taken from the cervix and looked at under a microscope. It is most often done during a routine pelvic exam. If the Pap test results show cells that are not normal and may become cancer, your health care provider will contact you. There are many reasons why Pap test results might not be normal. It usually does not mean you have cancer.
- High Risk (HR) HPV test
The HR HPV test looks for the high-risk types of this virus that cause most cases of cervical cancer. The HPV test can be done at the same time as the Pap test using either the same sample of cervical cells or a second sample taken right after the Pap test. A positive result for HR HPV means that you should be followed closely to make sure that abnormal cells do not develop. For more information on HPV and HPV vaccine visit: http://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/human_papillomavirus/
How often should I be screened for cervical cancer?
The following screening recommendations have been developed by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). The USPSTF is made up of experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine who review scientific evidence on a broad range of clinical preventive health care services and develop recommendations for primary care clinicians and health systems.
USPSTF Cervical Cancer Screening Recommendations for Women at Average Risk
- Cervical cancer screening should start at 21 years of age
- Pap test every three years between 21 and 29 years old
- Pap test and HPV test (co-testing) every five years between 30 and 65 years old or a Pap test every three years.
Many people confuse pelvic exams with Pap tests because they are usually done at the same time. The pelvic exam is part of a woman's regular health care. During this exam, the health care provider looks at and feels the reproductive organs. The pelvic exam may help find diseases of the female organs, but it will not find cancer of the cervix at an early stage. To do that, cervical cancer screening tests are needed.
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 cervical cancer screening. Cervical cancer is most often found in women who have not had a Pap test in more than five years or have never been screened at all.
How can I lower my chances of getting cervical cancer?
- The HPV vaccine prevents cervical cancer by protecting against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical cancer. For more information about the HPV vaccine, such as who should receive the vaccine and when, visit: http://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/human_papillomavirus/
- See your health care provider regularly for a cervical cancer screening.
- Follow-up with your health care provider if your cervical cancer screening results are not normal.
- Use condoms. For more information about condoms, visit: http://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/aids/consumers/condoms/
- Don't smoke or, if you do, quit. For more information about how to quit, visit the New York State Department of Health Tobacco Control Program Quitline at http://www.nysmokefree.com/
How can I get a cervical cancer screening?
1) Free cervical cancer screening is available for eligible, uninsured New York residents through the New York State Cancer Services Program. You may be eligible if you:
- Live in New York State
- Do not have health insurance
- Have health insurance with a cost share that may be a barrier to care
- Meet income eligibility requirements
- Meet age requirements
To get more information or to be connected to a Cancer Services Program near you, call the toll-free number, 1-866-442-CANCER (2262) or visit the Cancer Services Program website to find a program in your area. Hablamos español. There are also translation services available for other languages.
If you do not live in New York State,visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find a low and/or no cost screening program in your state.
2) Cervical cancer screening is an essential health benefit under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, so health plans participating in the New York State of Health must cover cancer screening tests at no cost to the patient. For more information, go to the New York State of Health: The Official Health Plan Marketplace, or call the help line at 1.855.355.5777 or TTY: 1.800.662.1220
3) Cervical cancer screening is fully covered through New York's Medicaid program.
Can I get treatment for cervical cancer if I don't have insurance?
Women in need of treatment for cervical cancer may be eligible for coverage through the New York State Medicaid Cancer Treatment Program (NYS MCTP). Coverage lasts for the entire time you are being treated and includes medications.
To learn if you are eligible for this program or to get more information, visit the NYS MCTP website.