Frequently Asked Questions About Cervical Cancer

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is cancer that starts in a woman's cervix. The cervix is the opening of the uterus. It connects the vagina (or birth canal) to the uterus (womb). Cervical cancer usually starts with changes to the cells on the cervix, called dysplasia. These abnormal cells can be removed to prevent cancer, if found early.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

In the early stages of cervical cancer there are often no symptoms. The longer a woman has cervical cancer without treatment, the more likely she will have symptoms. Some of the symptoms of later stage cervical cancer can include:

  • Heavy vaginal bleeding or discharge (more than usual)
  • Bleeding after sex, between periods or after a pelvic exam
  • Pain during sex or urination

If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your health care provider. These symptoms may be caused by something else, but the only way to know for sure is to see your health care provider.

What are the risk factors for cervical cancer?

A risk factor is anything that increases the chance of getting a disease. Any woman can get cervical cancer, but some women are at higher risk because of factors such as:

  • Having the Human Papillomavirus Virus (HPV)

    HPV causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer. It is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Both men and women can have HPV.

    HPV often goes away on its own, but if it does not, it could cause cervical cancer in women. Many women will have an HPV infection at some point in their lives, but few will get cervical cancer.

  • Not Getting Screened

    Cervical cancer is most often found in women who have not been screened with the Pap (Papanicolaou) test in more than five years or who have never been screened at all. Women who have been screened but do not follow up with their health care provider when results are abnormal are also more likely to develop cervical cancer.

  • Smoking

    Women who smoke are about two times more likely to get cervical cancer, compared to women who do not smoke. Research shows cigarettes may damage the cells of the cervix, which can lead to cervical cancer. Smoking also weakens the immune system, making it harder to fight off HPV infections.

  • Aging

    Women over the age of 30 are more likely to get cervical cancer.

Other risk factors for cervical cancer include:

  • Having been treated before for cervical cancer or for abnormal cells that may become cancer
  • Using birth control pills for five years or longer
  • Giving birth three or more times
  • Having multiple sexual partners
  • Having HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, or another condition that makes it hard for your body to fight off infections
  • Having a mother who took DES (diethylstilbestrol) while pregnant with you

How can I lower my chances of getting cervical cancer?

Some risk factors, like age, cannot be controlled, but others can. Some ways to lower the risk of cervical cancer or prevent it entirely are:

Get Vaccinated

The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical cancer. It is recommended for both males and females.

  • In females, the HPV vaccine helps to prevent cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. It also protects against cancer of the anus, mouth and throat.
  • In males, the HPV vaccine helps to prevent cancer of the penis, anus, mouth and throat.

For more information about the HPV vaccine, including who should get it and when, visit: The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccine.

Get Screened

Cervical cancer can be prevented or found early with regular screening tests. The COVID-19 pandemic caused many people to miss their cervical cancer screening appointment. If you are due for cervical cancer screening, do not wait. Call your health care provider to schedule your appointment as soon as you can. If you are having any symptoms of cervical cancer, call your health care provider right away.

Health care providers are taking steps so that important health visits can happen safely. All staff and patients must wear masks and be screened for COVID-19 symptoms before going in the office. Equipment, exam rooms and dressing rooms are cleaned after each patient. Other safety steps may include socially distanced waiting rooms, on-line check in, and more time added between appointments.

See your health care provider regularly for a cervical cancer screening. Follow up with your provider if your screening results are not normal.

There are two screening tests that can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early:

  • Pap test (or Pap Smear)

    A Pap test looks for changes in cells taken from the cervix and sent to a lab to be looked at under a microscope. It is most often done during a routine pelvic exam. If the Pap test shows cells that are not normal and may become cancer, your health care provider will contact you. There are many reasons why Pap test results may be abnormal. It usually does not mean you have cancer. Deaths from cervical cancer have gone down by more than 50% over the past 40 years mostly due to the (Pap) test.

  • High Risk (HR) HPV test

    The HR HPV test looks for types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer. The HPV test can be done at the same time as the Pap test. A positive result for HR HPV means that your health care provider should follow up with you often to make sure that abnormal cells do not develop.

What's the difference between a pelvic exam and a Pap test?

Many people confuse pelvic exams with Pap tests because they are usually done at the same time. During a pelvic exam, the health care provider feels the reproductive organs. The pelvic exam may help find diseases of the female organs, but it will not find cervical cancer at an early stage. To do that, a screening test is needed.

Make Healthy Choices:

  • Don't smoke, or if you do, quit. For more information about how to quit, visit the New York State Smokers' Quitline.
  • Use condoms. More information about condoms can be found here.

How often should I be screened for cervical cancer?

The following screening recommendations have been developed by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) for women at average risk for cervical cancer.

Cervical Cancer Screening Recommendations for Women at Average Risk

  • Women should start cervical cancer screening at 21 years of age.
  • Women ages 21 to 29 years should have a Pap test every three years.
  • Women ages 30 to 65 years have the choice to get a Pap test every three years, a HR HPV test every five years, or a Pap test and HR HPV test every five years.

Women who are not having sex or who think they're too old to have a child should still have regular cervical cancer screenings. Women who have had the HPV vaccine still need regular screening.

Women can stop getting screened if they are older than 65 and have had normal Pap results for many years. Women who have had their cervix removed during surgery for a non-cancerous reason, such as fibroids, may not need screening.

Women should talk with their health care provider to decide what is best for them.

How can I get a cervical cancer screening?

1. Free cervical cancer screening is available for eligible, uninsured New York residents through the New York State Cancer Services Program. You may be eligible if you:

  • Live in New York State
  • Do not have health insurance
  • Have health insurance with a cost share that may be a barrier to care
  • Meet program income requirements
  • Meet age requirements

To get more information or to be connected to a Cancer Services Program near you, call the toll-free number, 1-866-442-CANCER (2262)or visit the Cancer Services Program website to find a program in your area. Hablamos Español. Translation services are available for other languages.

2. If you do not live in New York State, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find a low and/or no cost screening program in your state.

3. Cervical cancer screening is an essential health benefit under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, so health plans participating in the New York State of Health must cover cancer screening tests at no cost to the patient. For more information, go to the New York State of Health: The Official Health Plan Marketplace, or call the help line at 1.855.355.5777 or TTY: 1.800.662.1220. You may also contact your health plan directly. Cervical cancer screening is also fully covered through New York State's Medicaid program.

Can I get treatment for cervical cancer if I don't have insurance?

Women in need of treatment for cervical cancer may be eligible for coverage through the New York State Medicaid Cancer Treatment Program (NYS MCTP). Coverage lasts for the entire time you are being treated and includes medications.

To learn if you are eligible for this program or to get more information, visit the NYS MCTP website.