How To Prevent Cervical Cancer

Dan Cherry meets Nguyen Hong My at the airport.
Cervical cancer is one of the most treatable cancers when detected early, and there are new guidelines to help doctors get the most out of the latest screening techniques, Dr. Emily Senay reports for The Early Show.

Take a Interactive look at Cancer: Learn about the most common cancers, who gets them and how they are treated. Discover how the disease attacks the human body and which cancers are the leading killers. Click Here. The following are Dr. Senay's answers to frequently asked questions:

What's the best way to avoid cervical cancer?

The best test to detect the earliest stages of cervical cancer is extremely effective. The pap test or the pap smear is still the gold standard. It involves taking a swab of cell samples from the cervix and testing them for precancerous changes that might signal the early development of cancer. If cervical cancer is caught early, it can be treated very successfully in most cases.

The importance of screening is highlighted by the statistics. Cervical cancer kills more than 4,000 women in the U.S. each year. And 13,000 new cases are diagnosed every year. Of those newly-diagnosed women, 50 percent have never had a pap test, and another 10 percent haven't had a pap test within five years of their diagnosis.

How will the new guidelines for cervical cancer screening improve our ability to detect it?

The new guidelines take into account improvements in our understanding of cervical cancer and our ability to screen for the disease.

The traditional method of screening is the pap test, followed by another procedure called a colposcopy, which is used to obtain further cell samples if the pap test turns up suspicious results. The new guidelines incorporate the use of an improved pap test, and also a new test for the human papilloma virus or HPV, which is a sexually-transmitted virus known to cause cervical cancer.

We now know that a majority of cervical cancer is caused by HPV, and the HPV test has been shown to help make screening more accurate.

If you get a pap test, do you automatically need a test for HPV, too?

No, the HPV test is useful as a secondary test if the pap test shows suspicious results.

Usually, a positive pap test means either repeat pap testing to confirm, or a colposcopy to obtain a biopsy for further testing. The problem is that the pap test sometimes turns up false positive results; it shows a risk of cancer when there is none. But follow-up exams to rule out the risk have to be conducted to be on the safe side, even if they are unnecessary.

The new guidelines suggest that the HPV test be used as a second line of defense in some cases where the pap test is positive. A newer pap test allows the original sample to be tested again for HPV if the first result is positive, which eliminates the need for another visit to the doctor.

If the HPV test is negative, the likelihood of cervical cancer is minimal and the woman can just continue with her regular pap tests.

When should screening start for cervical cancer?

Women should start getting an annual pap test at the age of 18, or when they become sexually active, whichever comes first. After three consecutive negative pap tests, screening can be performed less frequently, but that's a decision a woman has to make in consultation with her doctor.

Do older women need to keep getting regular pap tests?

The current guidelines do not set an upper age limit for cervical cancer screening. As long as a woman is healthy, she needs to continue to get a pap test on a regular basis.