Cancer screening is the pre-emptive process of looking for a cancer when no signs or symptoms are present. This is due to the fact that symptoms occur when a cancer has gotten large enough to affect surrounding bodily structures. Cancer is most easily treated while it is still small and has not spread far from its point of origin.
The Pap test relies on cytology, the study of cells, to determine if cancerous cells are present. In addition, this test can identify abnormalities in the cells that may indicate the potential for cancer developing at a later date. The Pap test only screens for cancerous cells within the cervix.
The HPV test, meanwhile, looks for signs of high-risk HPV types. The purpose of this test is to search for the presence of certain strains of infections which have a higher tendency to cause cell changes.
The Pap test is recommended yearly starting at age 21, and as directed by your doctor. The HPV test can be used in tandem with the Pap test (a process called co-testing) starting at 30 years old.
While there are no screening methods for vaginal or vulvar cancers in women who do not have symptoms, checkups are recommended. Your doctor can perform a pelvic or physical exam to look for lumps or take a biopsy to determine changes at the cellular level.
Currently, there is no recommended method to screen for ovarian cancer in asymptomatic women. Research is ongoing to determine whether techniques such as transvaginal ultrasound or the CA125 blood test may be used to detect the early signs of ovarian cancer.
There are presently no recommended or reliable ways to test for uterine cancer in women who do not have symptoms. Studies are ongoing to determine whether techniques such as endometrial sampling, the Pap test, or transvaginal ultrasound can be used to screen for uterine cancer.
It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of gynecologic cancers and be aware of any changes in your body. If you experience abnormal symptoms that last 2 weeks or more, schedule an appointment with your doctor.