Cervical cancer is often referred to as “the silent killer.”
However, while it affects women of all ages worldwide and presents very
few symptoms in the early stages, it’s the most preventable of all
female cancers. January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and is a great
time to talk with a health care provider to learn more about screenings
and prevention measures.
According to a study published in the March 2021 issue of the Journal of
the National Cancer Institute, cervical cancer screenings fell by 94%
compared to the 2017-2019 averages following the COVID-19 epidemic. Southeast
Georgia Health System is committed to helping prevent cervical cancer
and encourages all women in the Golden Isles to schedule their cervical
Over 90% of cervical cancers are caused by a human papillomavirus (HPV)
infection. HPV infections are very common - nearly all sexually active
people are infected with HPV at some point in their lifetime. Most HPV
infections go away on their own and don’t cause cancer, but sometimes
the infections last longer. When a high-risk HPV infection lasts for many
years, it can lead to cell changes. If these changes are not treated,
they may worsen over time and become cancerous.
Doctors can test for the high-risk HPV types that are most likely to cause
cervical cancer by looking for pieces of the DNA in cervical cells. Screenings
are completed using a primary HPV test, or at the same time as a Pap test,
called a co-test. Women won’t notice a difference in their exam
if both tests are done at the same time.
Both types of screening tests, the HPV and Pap tests, require a small sample
of cells from the cervix. A health care provider collects these using
a small tool to scrape or brush the cervix gently. The same set of cells
is used for both tests.
- The Pap test looks for changes in the cells that might be pre-cancer or cancer.
- The HPV test looks in the cells for infection by high-risk types of HPV
that are most likely to cause pre-cancer or cancer.
For people aged 21 to 65 years, the preferred American Cancer Society schedule
methods include the following.
- A primary HPV test every five years.
- A co-test every five years combining an HPV test with a Pap test.
- A Pap test alone every three years.
People older than age 65 with a cervix can stop being screened if they’ve
had 10 years of regular screenings with normal results. Those who have
had their cervix removed, such as from a hysterectomy, don’t need
to be screened if the surgery was done for reasons unrelated to cervical
cancer or serious pre-cancer.
The most important thing to remember is to get screened regularly, regardless
of which testing method you receive. The HPV vaccine is a great preventive
measure to combat cervical cancer. The majority of people become exposed
to HPV in their late teens or early 20s, so early immunization is an essential
preventative step. The vaccine is approved for boys and girls beginning
at age nine. People who have gotten the HPV vaccine should still follow
the screening guidelines listed above.
The Health System encourages women to talk with a health care provider
about risks for cervical cancer, as these guidelines are only for people
with an average risk. If you have had cervical cancer in the past, have
a family history of cervical cancer, or have a weakened immune system,
you may need to follow different guidelines recommended by your health
To find a health care provider, call the Health System’s toll free
provider referral line at 855-ASK-SGHS (855-275-7447) or visit