Clinical guidance

Cervical Cancer Q&A

by Carolyn Chandler, NP

Published November 10, 2023

If you have a cervix, it’s important to get screened for cervical cancer starting at age 21. Screening tests make it possible to treat cervical cancer before it becomes serious and often before it even develops.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix — the lower, narrow opening of the uterus. The cervix lies at the upper end of the vagina.

What causes cervical cancer?

A virus called HPV (human papillomavirus) causes most types of cervical cancer.

Even though HPV is very common, in most cases it won’t cause any harm and will go away on its own. But if an HPV infection lasts a long time, it can cause changes that eventually turn into cervical cancer.

How can we screen for cervical cancer?

By testing for HPV and by doing a Pap test, which looks for precancerous cells in the cervix.

For both tests, a trained provider in a medical office collects cells from your cervix. They usually do a pelvic exam at this time, too.

Why do we screen for cervical cancer?

So we can treat cervical cancer and precancerous cells before they become serious or even deadly.

Since cervical cancer screening tests were developed in the 1970s, cervical cancer deaths have dropped by about half. New cases of cervical cancer have dropped too, especially since the HPV vaccine became available.

Who should get screened for cervical cancer?

Everyone with a cervix between the ages of 21 and 65.

If you’re older than 65 or you’ve had your cervix removed, talk to your doctor about whether you might still benefit from cervical cancer screening.

I’ve gotten the HPV vaccine. Do I still need cervical cancer screening?

Yes. Current HPV vaccines don’t protect against all types of HPV that cause cervical cancer.

I’ve never had sex. Do I still need cervical cancer screening?

Yes. Even though the risk is low, it’s possible for someone who’s never had sex to develop cervical cancer.

How often do I need cervical cancer screening?

Around every 3–5 years, but it depends on your past test results and what kind of screening you had.