How Preventive Exams Are Used to Detect Cervical Cancer in Women

How Preventive Exams Are Used to Detect Cervical Cancer in Women

You may already be familiar with the preventive services covered under your health plan, but do you know what those services prevent? Three preventive services especially for women covered by health insurance are the pap smear, pelvic exam and HPV test. Each of these tests plays a part in keeping you healthy by looking for abnormal cells before they turn into a more serious condition, like cervical cancer.

What is a Pap Smear?

The pap smear   is a routine outpatient cervical cancer screening procedure that women have been getting for decades. It’s recommended that women start getting Pap smears at 21. Pap is short for Papanicolaou test, which is the last name of the doctor who studied changes in cervical cells in the 1900s.

The Pap test looks for changes in the cervix that may lead to cancer. Routine Pap smears are encouraged to locate cancer early, which makes the cancer easier to treat. The procedure doesn’t take a great deal of time. Your doctor will collect cells and mucus from your cervix, and the surrounding areas of the cervix to be analyzed by a laboratory.

It may take a few weeks to get results back. Once the results do come back, your doctor will reach out to you to discuss if your pap smear was normal or abnormal.

An abnormal pap smear doesn’t mean you definitely have cervical cancer. There are a number of reasons results can come back abnormal, so be sure to follow up with your doctor to learn more about next steps.

How to prepare for a Pap Smear

  • Try not to schedule your Pap smear during your menstrual cycle.
  • Do not have sex for two days before the test.
  • Do not douche for two days before the test.
  • Do not use birth control foams, jellies, tampons, or other creams or medicines for two days before the test.

What is HPV?

For women 30 or older, the HPV test can be done at the same time as the Pap test. According to the Center for Disease and Control (CDC), the human papilloma virus   (HPV) is one of the leading causes of cervical cancer cases in the U.S. There are many different types of HPV and it’s the most common sexually transmitted infection in the country.

The HPV test is done by your doctor to check the cervix for the HPV virus that can cause abnormal cells. The presence of abnormal cells could lead to cervical cancer. It’s not likely that you’ll know when cervix cells have changed. Going to your routine doctor’s appointments can help your doctor identify abnormal cells before they grow into cancerous cells.

Doctors don’t always test for HPV at the time of your pap smear. Be sure to ask your doctor what tests are included in your routine pap smear and when you’ll receive your test results.

What is a Pelvic Exam?

Pelvic exams look for signs of disease in areas best entered through the pelvis. Doctors use pelvic exams to check the following:

  • Cervix
  • Fallopian tubes
  • Ovaries
  • Rectum
  • Uterus
  • Vulva

Remember that pap smears and pelvic exams check for different things. It’s easy to get the procedures confused. They both can be done separately or at the same time by an OB/GYN. Your routine pelvic exam is also covered by your health insurance.

What is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer affects over 13,000 women yearly in the United States  . The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines cancer as a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. In this case, it’s when the cells near the cervix grow out of control.

Cervical cancer starts in the cells lining the cervix, which is the lower, narrow end of a woman’s uterus. It is a preventable disease if routine screening tests are done and vaccines  are taken.

The American Cancer Society suggests that women have regular testing to find pre-cancers or abnormal cells before they become cancer. Tests like the Pap test and HPV test are well proven methods for helping doctors find abnormal cells.

Cervical Cancer Risk Factors
HPV infection: Women carrying the human papilloma virus are more at risk for developing cervical cancer. HPV infections that increase the chances of cervical cancer are spread through sexual contact.

Not everyone infected with HPV will keep the virus. A strong immune system can fight off the HPV infection. There is a very small portion of women infected with HPV that develop cervical cancer. In the United States, high-risk HPV types cause approximately 3 percent of all cancer cases among women.  

Weak immune system: Immunosuppression increases the risk of HPV infection that leads to cervical cancer. The Immunosuppression condition weakens the body’s immune system, making it difficult to fight infections like HPV and other diseases. HIV and medicines to prevent organ rejection after a transplant can cause immunosuppression. 

DES exposure: Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is a synthetic form of the estrogen hormone found in women. This drug was prescribed to women to prevent pregnancy complications between 1940 and 1971. Diethylstilbestrol was later linked to cancer of the cervix and vagina in a small group of women.

The drug is no longer prescribed to women; however, the daughters of those women exposed from 1940 -1971 have an increased risk of developing a rare form of cancer.

Women with HPV

There are other risk factors for women that already carry the HPV virus. Women with the HPV virus increase their risk of developing cervical cancer if they have seven or more full term pregnancies, smoke or use oral contraceptives for long periods of time.

Can cervical cancer be prevented?

The National Cancer Institute lists several precautions women can take to lower their cervical cancer risk. The HPV type that leads to cervical cancer is transmitted through sexual contact. Women can lower their chances of getting the HPV by doing the following:

  • Get the HPV vaccine
  • Use a condom or diaphragm

By now it should be clear why having a routine Pap smear, pelvic exam and HPV test is important. Early detection with screenings is the key to you staying healthy.

Sources:

cancer.org/cancer/cervicalcancer/detailedguide/cervical-cancer-key-statistics 
cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/
webmd.com/women/guide/pelvic-examination 
youngwomenshealth.org/2010/06/10/abnormal-pap-test/ 
nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003911.htm 

 

 Last updated: 6/14/2019

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