Pap smear is best defense against cervical cancer

Dec. 26, 2022

Getting a Pap smear may not be on the list of your top favorite things to do, but if you are a woman in your 20s or older, getting a Pap test is the best thing you can do to detect cervical cancer.

A middle-aged woman outside, wearing a turtlenext sweater.
Women who are age 20 and older should be sure to have a regular Pap smear. It could save your life. Photo: Getty Images.

Dr. Dirk Pikaart, UCHealth gynecologic oncologist, has been taking care of women with gynecological cancers for nearly two decades. UCHealth Today asked Dr. Pikaart to explain more about cervical cancer and the need for regular Pap smears.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer affects about 14,000 women a year in this country and about 6,000 women die from cervical cancer a year. Cervical cancer is a cancer that we can catch in the pre-cancer stages before its development so we can treat the pre-cancer disease and prevent cervical cancer from ever happening.

What causes cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is almost always caused by a virus called HPV. This virus most commonly is sexually transmitted and is very common in the population. You can be exposed to the virus and not know it, and that’s why it’s important to have the Pap smears to check for that exposure. It’s not a genetic cancer. Some of the risk factors are multiple partners, cigarette smoking and early-age sexual activity.

How often should a woman have a Pap smear?

The recommended Pap smear, depending on how it’s done, is once every three years for an average patient. Pap smears should really start in the early 20s. Women can get cervical cancer all the way from age 20 on up to their 70s and 80s. It’s important that they get proper medical care monitoring so that if they get this pre-cancer change or Pap smears become abnormal, we know about it and we treat them before they ever get a life-threatening condition called cervical cancer.

Head shot of Dr. Dirk Pikaart
Dr. Dirk Pikaart is a gynecologic oncologist at UCHealth Memorial Hospital. Photo by UCHealth.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

One of the problems is that, early on, cervical cancer is asymptomatic. It’s very hard to catch early based on symptoms alone. Pre-cancer of the cervix often doesn’t cause any symptoms. As it develops, some of the more common symptoms are vaginal discharge or abnormal bleeding or an abnormal menstrual cycle.

What is the treatment for pre-cancer of the cervix?

Pre-cancer of the cervix has a variety of treatments depending on its condition or its grade. Some of the treatments can be freezing to destroy the abnormal cells, laser therapy or sometimes surgical excision.

What are the survival rates for women who have cervical cancer?

Survival rates of cervical cancer are directly related to what stage of cancer is detected. The key to most cancers, including cervical cancer, is to catch them early. If we catch them early, survival rates are much better. For Stage 1 cervical cancer, the survival rate can be better than 90% at five years. For more advanced stages, the survival drops quickly down to sometimes 30% chance of survival at five years and for Stage 3 and Stage 4 disease, even lower.

What if I have abnormal bleeding?

Abnormal symptoms like bleeding and discharge should never be ignored. It’s very important that you see your provider, a physician or nurse practitioner, to get evaluated for that because it could be early cervix cancer, especially if you haven’t had a Pap smear.

What happens during a PAP smear?

Screening for cervix cancer is easy. It’s a quick exam. A Pap smear is a little sampling of some cells. It’s not even a biopsy. It doesn’t hurt and it only takes a few minutes at the doctor’s office and those Pap smears can be lifesaving. I wish all women knew and understood is that there’s always a way to get your Pap smear if you don’t have insurance or you don’t have a doctor. There are programs out there that can help you get a free screening test, so not having insurance and not being able to afford it is not an excuse to not get your Pap smears

Is there a vaccine that can help?

In the United States we have a vaccine for HPV. The HPV vaccine, when given to children when they are 11 or 12 years old, can help to prevent cancers of the cervix, vagina and vulva in women and cancers of the penis in men. With the vaccine, if they are exposed to HPV later in life, it’s less likely to turn into pre-cancer of the cervix and ultimately cancer.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.