Getting screened for cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is preventable through routine screening and highly treatable when found early.

There are two screening tests for cervical cancer, the Pap test and HPV test.

A Pap test (also called a Pap smear) checks for changes in the cells of your cervix that could turn into cancer over time. The Pap test can find these cells early when treatment works best. The HPV test checks for the virus (HPV) that can cause abnormal cells and cervical cancer.

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What to say when you talk to your health care provider

Before you get a breast or cervical cancer screening, you may want to ask your doctor the following questions:

  • What are my risks of getting cervical cancer?
  • How often should I be screened?
  • What will happen during the screening test?
  • How long will it take?
  • When and how will I learn about the results?
  • When will I need to have my next screening?

What to expect from a Pap test

During a Pap test, you will be asked to lie on your back with your feet in stirrups. The health care provider will use a plastic or metal instrument, called a speculum, to widen the vagina. This helps the health care provider examine the vagina and the cervix, and collect cells and mucus from the cervix and the area around it. The cells will then be placed on a slide or in a bottle of liquid and sent to a laboratory. The laboratory will check to be sure that the cells are normal.

What to expect from an HPV test

HPV tests use the same pelvic exam as pap smears (as described above). The HPV test may be completed at the same time as your Pap test (called a co-test) or done by itself (primary HPV test). If you are getting a pap test at the same time, the same sample can be used to test for HPV.

When to get screened

Anyone with a cervix, ages 21 to 65, should get screened for cervical cancer. Individuals 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 people who have not been screened with the Pap test in more than five years or have never been screened at all. How often you get screened for cervical cancer depends on many factors, including your age, your screening history, and your sexual activity. Talk with your provider about when and how often you should get screened.

Can I get screened if I don't have insurance?

Yes. Free breast and cervical cancer screening is available for eligible, uninsured or underinsured Massachusetts residents through the Massachusetts Breast and Cervical Cancer Program (MBCCP). To get more information or to be connected to an MBCCP clinical site near you, please call (877) 414-4447.

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