What causes cervical cancer?
Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by infection with
oncogenic, or high-risk, types of human papillomavirus, or HPV. There are about
12 high-risk HPV types. Infections with these sexually transmitted viruses also
cause most anal cancers; many vaginal, vulvar, and penile cancers; and some
Although HPV infection is very common, most infections will be
suppressed by the immune system within 1 to 2 years without causing cancer.
These transient infections may cause temporary changes in cervical cells. If a
cervical infection with a high-risk HPV type persists, the cellular changes can
eventually develop into more severe precancerous lesions. If precancerous
lesions are not treated, they can progress to cancer. It can take 10 to 20 years
or more for a persistent infection with a high-risk HPV type to develop into
What is cervical cancer screening?
Cervical cancer screening is an essential part of a woman’s
routine health care. It is a way to detect abnormal cervical cells, including
precancerous cervical lesions, as well as early cervical cancers. Both
precancerous lesions and early cervical cancers can be treated very
successfully. Routine cervical screening has been shown to greatly reduce both
the number of new cervical cancers diagnosed each year and deaths from the
Cervical cancer screening includes two types of screening tests:
cytology-based screening, known as the Pap test or Pap smear, and HPV testing.
The main purpose of screening with the Pap test is to detect abnormal cells that
may develop into cancer if left untreated. The Pap test can also find
noncancerous conditions, such as infections and inflammation. It can also find
cancer cells. In regularly screened populations, the Pap test identifies most
abnormal cells before they become cancer.
HPV testing is used to look for the presence of DNA or RNA from
high-risk HPV types in cervical cells. These tests can sometimes detect HPV
infections before cell abnormalities are evident. The most common test detects
DNA from the high-risk HPV types, but it cannot identify the specific type or
types that are present. Another test is specific for DNA from HPV types 16 and
18, the two types that cause most HPV-associated cancers. A third test can
detect DNA from several high-risk HPV types and can indicate whether HPV-16 or
HPV-18 is present. A fourth test detects RNA from the most common high-risk HPV
How is cervical cancer screening done?
Cervical cancer screening can be done in a medical office, a
clinic, or a hospital. It is often done during a pelvic examination.
While a woman lies on an exam table, a health care professional
inserts an instrument called a speculum into her vagina to widen it so that the
upper portion of the vagina and the cervix can be seen. This procedure also
allows the health care professional to take a sample of cervical cells. The
cells are taken with a wooden or plastic scraper and/or a cervical brush and are
then prepared for analysis in one of two ways. In a conventional Pap test, the
specimen (or smear) is placed on a glass microscope slide and a fixative is
added. In an automated liquid-based Pap cytology test, cervical cells collected
with a brush or other instrument are placed in a vial of liquid preservative.
The slide or vial is then sent to a laboratory for analysis.
In the United States, automated liquid-based Pap cytology
testing has largely replaced conventional Pap tests. One advantage of
liquid-based testing is that the same cell sample can also be tested for the
presence of high-risk types of HPV, a process known as “Pap and HPV cotesting.”
In addition, liquid-based cytology appears to reduce the likelihood of an
unsatisfactory specimen. However, conventional and liquid-based Pap tests appear
to have a similar ability to detect cellular abnormalities.
When should a woman begin cervical cancer screening, and how
often should she be screened?
Women should talk with their doctor about when to start
screening and how often to be screened. In March 2012, updated screening
guidelines were released by the United States Preventive Services Task Force and
jointly by the American Cancer Society, the American Society for Colposcopy and
Cervical Pathology, and the American Society for Clinical Pathology. These
guidelines recommend that women have their first Pap test at age 21. Although
previous guidelines recommended that women have their first Pap test 3 years
after they start having sexual intercourse, waiting until age 21 is now
recommended because adolescents have a very low risk of cervical cancer and a
high likelihood that cervical cell abnormalities will go away on their own.
According to the updated guidelines, women ages 21 through 29 should be screened
with a Pap test every 3 years. Women ages 30 through 65 can then be screened
every 5 years with Pap and HPV cotesting or every 3 years with a Pap test alone.
The guidelines advise that routine Pap and HPV cotesting be
limited to women age 30 and older because transient HPV infections are very
common among women in their twenties. Including routine HPV testing in cervical
screening of younger women would detect many infections that will be suppressed
by the immune system and not lead to cancer. In older women, HPV infections are
more likely to represent persistent infections—that is, infections that have the
potential to progress to cervical cancer if not detected or treated. However,
HPV testing can be used in women of any age to help clarify unclear Pap test
findings and help doctors decide if further evaluation is needed. (See Question
9 for more information.)
The guidelines also note that women with certain risk factors
may need to have more frequent screening or to continue screening beyond age 65.
These risk factors include being infected with the human immunodeficiency virus
(HIV), being immunosuppressed, having been exposed to diethylstilbestrol before
birth, and having been treated for a precancerous cervical lesion or cervical
Women who have had a hysterectomy (surgery to remove the uterus
and cervix) do not need to have cervical screening, unless the hysterectomy was
done to treat a precancerous cervical lesion or cervical cancer.
What are the benefits of Pap and HPV cotesting?
For women age 30 and older, Pap and HPV cotesting is less likely
to miss an abnormality (i.e., has a lower false-negative rate) than Pap testing
alone. Therefore, a woman with a negative HPV test and normal Pap test has very
little risk of a serious abnormality developing over the next several years. In
fact, researchers have found that, when Pap and HPV cotesting is used,
lengthening the screening interval to 5 years still allows abnormalities to be
detected in time to treat them, but it reduces the detection of transient HPV
Adding HPV testing to Pap testing may also improve the detection
of glandular cell abnormalities, including adenocarcinoma of the cervix (cancer
of the glandular cells of the cervix). Glandular cells are mucus-producing cells
found in the endocervical canal (the opening in the center of the cervix) or in
the lining of the uterus. Glandular cell abnormalities and adenocarcinoma of the
cervix are much less common than squamous cell abnormalities and squamous cell
carcinoma. There is some evidence that Pap testing is not as good at detecting
adenocarcinoma and glandular cell abnormalities as it is at detecting squamous
cell abnormalities and cancers.
Can HPV testing be used alone for cervical cancer screening?
Not enough data are available to determine whether HPV testing
can be used alone to screen for cervical cancer. Ongoing studies are
investigating the possibility of using routine HPV testing as a primary
screening method, with follow-up testing by a Pap test or other tests for women
who test positive for a high-risk HPV type.
What is the best time to be screened for cervical cancer?
The best time for a woman to have cervical screening is between
10 and 20 days after the first day of her last menstrual period. A woman should
not have cervical screening when she is menstruating. For about 2 days before
the test, she should avoid sexual intercourse, douching, or using vaginal
medicines or spermicidal foams, creams, or jellies (except as directed by a
doctor) because they may wash away or hide abnormal cells. After the test, she
can go back to her normal activities and return to work right away.
How are the results of Pap tests reported?
A doctor may simply describe Pap test results to a patient as
“normal” or “abnormal.” It is important to remember that abnormalities rarely
become cancerous, and even severe lesions do not always lead to cancer.
Likewise, HPV test results can either be “positive,” meaning that a patient is
infected with at least one high-risk HPV type, or “negative,” indicating that
high-risk HPV types were not found. A woman may want to ask her doctor for
specific information about her Pap and HPV test results and what these results
Most laboratories in the United States use a standard set of
terms, called the Bethesda System, to report Pap test results. Under the
Bethesda System, samples that have no cell abnormalities are reported as
“negative for intraepithelial lesion or malignancy.” A negative Pap test report
may also note certain benign (non-neoplastic) findings, such as common
infections or inflammation. Pap test results also indicate whether the specimen
was satisfactory or unsatisfactory for examination.
The Bethesda System considers abnormalities of squamous cells
and glandular cells separately. Squamous cell abnormalities are divided into the
following categories, ranging from the mildest to the most severe.
Atypical squamous cells (ASC) are the most common abnormal
finding in Pap tests. The Bethesda System divides this category into two groups,
which are described below.
ASC-US: atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance.
The squamous cells do not appear completely normal, but doctors are uncertain
about what the cell changes mean. Sometimes the changes are related to an HPV
infection, but they can also be caused by other factors. For women who have ASC-US,
a sample of cells may be tested for the presence of high-risk HPV types. If
high-risk HPV type is present, follow-up testing will usually be performed. On
the other hand, a negative HPV test can provide reassurance that cancer or a
precancerous condition is not present.
ASC-H: atypical squamous cells, cannot exclude a high-grade
squamous intraepithelial lesion. The cells do not appear normal, but doctors are
uncertain about what the cell changes mean. ASC-H lesions may be at higher risk
of being precancerous compared with ASC-US lesions.
Low-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions (LSILs) are
considered mild abnormalities caused by HPV infection. Low-grade means that
there are early changes in the size and shape of cells. Intraepithelial refers
to the layer of cells that forms the surface of the cervix. LSILs are sometimes
classified as mild dysplasia. LSILs may also be classified as cervical
intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN-1).
High-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions (HSILs) are more
severe abnormalities that have a higher likelihood of progressing to cancer if
left untreated. High-grade means that there are more evident changes in the size
and shape of the abnormal (precancerous) cells and that the cells look very
different from normal cells. HSILs include lesions with moderate or severe
dysplasia and carcinoma in situ (CIS). HSIL lesions are sometimes classified as
CIN-2, CIN-3, or CIN-2/3. CIS is commonly included in the CIN-3 category.
Squamous cell carcinoma is cervical cancer. The abnormal
squamous cells have invaded deeper into the cervix or into other tissues or
organs. In a well-screened population, such as that in the United States, a
finding of cancer during cervical screening is extremely rare.
Glandular cell abnormalities are divided into the following
Atypical glandular cells (AGC), meaning the glandular cells do
not appear normal, but doctors are uncertain about what the cell changes mean.
Endocervical adenocarcinoma in situ (AIS), meaning that
precancerous cells are found only in glandular tissue of the cervix.
Adenocarcinoma includes not only cancer of the endocervical
canal itself but also, in some cases, endometrial, extrauterine, and other
What follow-up tests are done if cervical cancer screening
results are abnormal?
If a woman receiving Pap and HPV cotesting is found to have a
normal Pap test result with a positive HPV test that detects the group of
high-risk HPV types, the doctor will probably have the woman return in a year
for repeat screening to see if the HPV infection persists and whether any cell
changes have developed that need further follow-up. Alternatively, the woman may
have another HPV test that looks specifically for HPV-16 and HPV-18, the two HPV
types that cause most cervical cancers. If either of these types is present, a
woman will likely have follow-up testing.
If a woman is found to have an ASC-US Pap test result, her
doctor may have the sample tested for high-risk HPV types or may repeat the Pap
test to determine whether further follow-up is needed. Many times, cell changes
in the cervix go away without treatment, especially if there is no evidence of
infection with high-risk HPV. Doctors may prescribe estrogen cream for women
with ASC-US who are near or past menopause. Because ASC-US cell changes can be
caused by low hormone levels, applying an estrogen cream to the cervix for a few
weeks can usually help to clarify their cause.
Follow-up testing for ASC-US with a positive HPV test, for LSIL,
or for HSIL, may involve a colposcopy, in which an instrument much like a
microscope (called a colposcope) is used to examine the vagina and the cervix.
During a colposcopy, the doctor inserts a speculum to widen the vagina and may
apply a dilute vinegar solution to the cervix, which causes abnormal areas to
turn white. The doctor then uses the colposcope (which remains outside the body)
to observe the cervix.
If abnormal tissue is found during a colposcopy, the doctor may
perform endocervical curettage or a biopsy. A biopsy is the removal of cells or
tissues from the abnormal area for examination under a microscope. Endocervical
curettage is a type of biopsy that involves scraping cells from inside the
endocervical canal with a small spoon-shaped tool called a curette.
If follow-up testing shows cells with more severe abnormalities,
further treatment is needed. Without treatment, these cells may turn into
cancer. Treatment options include the following:
LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure) uses an
electrical current that is passed through a thin wire loop to act as a knife to
Cryotherapy destroys abnormal tissue by freezing it.
Laser therapy uses a narrow beam of intense light to destroy or
remove abnormal cells.
Conization removes a cone-shaped piece of tissue using a knife,
a laser, or the LEEP technique.
Do women who have been vaccinated against HPVs still need to be
screened for cervical cancer?
Yes. Because current HPV vaccines do not protect against all HPV
types that cause cervical cancer, it is important for vaccinated women to
continue to undergo routine cervical cancer screening.
What are the limitations of cervical cancer screening?
Like any screening test, cervical cancer screening is not
completely accurate. Sometimes a patient can be told that she has abnormal cells
when the cells are actually normal (a false-positive result), or she can be told
that her cells are normal when in fact there is an abnormality that was not
detected (a false-negative result).
Cervical cancer screening has another limitation, caused by the
nature of HPV infections. Because most HPV infections are transient and produce
only temporary changes in cervical cells, overly frequent cervical screening
could detect cervical cell changes that would never cause cancer. Treating
abnormalities that would have gone away on their own can cause needless
psychological stress. In addition, follow-up tests and treatments can be
uncomfortable, and some treatments that remove cervical tissue, such as LEEP and
conization, have the potential to weaken the cervix and may affect fertility or
slightly increase the rate of premature delivery, depending on how much tissue
The screening intervals in the 2012 guidelines are intended to
minimize the harms caused by treating abnormalities that would never progress to
cancer while also limiting false-negative results that would delay the diagnosis
and treatment of a precancerous condition or cancer. With these intervals, if an
HPV infection or abnormal cells are missed at one screen, chances are good that
abnormal cells will be detected at the next screening exam, when they can still
be treated successfully.