Cervical cancer starts with abnormal cells in the cervix. When these precancerous cells are found on a PAP smear — a routine cervical cancer screening — treatment can prevent cancer from developing.

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The cervix connects the vagina and the uterus. Cervical cancer is a cancer that begins in the cells that line the cervix. Cervical cancer begins when typical cells in this area change and become atypical. This is called precancer.

Not all precancers become cervical cancer. In fact, many precancers go away on their own without treatment. However, treating precancers can prevent cervical cancer. This is one of the reasons why screening for cervical cancer is so important. Screening can find precancers, allowing them to be treated and preventing them from ever becoming cancer.

Learn more about cervical cancer.

There are two primary sets of guidelines for cervical cancer screening. It’s a good idea to talk with your doctor about these guidelines and about your personal risk for cervical cancer. They can help you set the screening schedule that is best for you.

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) guidelines

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) provides recommendations for the general public, including people with a cervix who do not have symptoms of cervical cancer and who are not considered high risk. USPSTF currently recommends the following:

  • no screening for women under 21
  • women between 21 and 29 years old receive cervical cancer screening every 3 years with cervical cytology.
  • women between 30 and 65 years-old receive screening every 3 years with cervical cytology, every 5 years with high risk human papillomavirus (hrHPV) testing, or every 5 years with HrHPV and cytology testing combined.
  • no screening for women over 65 who are not at high risk for cervical cancer.
  • no screening for women who’ve had hysterectomies that included cervix removal and who do not have a history of any type of cervical cancer, including early stage or precancer

American Cancer Society guidelines

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that:

  • women between 25 and 65 have a primary HPV test every 5 years (If you cannot have an HPV test, then they recommend: an HPV test in combination with a Papanicolaou (Pap) test every 5 years, or a pap test every 3 years.)
  • screening stops after 65 as long as all tests for the past 10 years have been normal and there’s no history of a precancer or cervical cancer diagnosis in the past 25 years
  • screening stops after a hysterectomy that includes removal of the cervix unless the hysterectomy was done as treatment for cervical cancer or as cervical cancer prevention
  • anyone at high risk of cervical cancer speak with their doctor about getting screened more often

Language matters

You’ll notice we use the binary term “women” in this article. While we realize this term may not match your gender experience, it’s the term used by the professional organizations issuing the cervical cancer screening recommendations to which we refer. We try to be as specific as possible when reporting on clinical recommendations, research participants, and clinical findings.

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There are a few different methods available for cervical cancer screening. The exact options offered to you might depend on your location and on the healthcare facility you choose.

Commonly, cervical cancer screening is done with an HPV test, PAP test, or both. These tests are typically done by removing a sample of cells from the cervix. They’re often during the pelvic exam portion of a routine gynecological exam.

Symptoms of cervical cancer can include:

Your exact cervical cancer treatment plan will depend on factors such as your stage at diagnosis and the size and location of the tumor. Treatment plans typically include surgery to remove the tumor, along with radiation and chemotherapy. Additional treatments, such as immunotherapy and targeted therapy, are also sometimes options.

Your individual outlook for cervical cancer varies depending on factors such as:

  • the stage when diagnosed
  • response to treatment
  • age
  • general health
  • genetics
  • other individual risk factors

The relative 5-year survival rate for cervical cancer is 67%, but the 5-year survival rate for people diagnosed when cervical cancer is still early stage is 91%. When cervical cancer isn’t found and treated until it has spread to other body parts (later stage), the survival rate is 19%.

You can learn more about cervical can by reading the answers to some common questions.

What causes cervical cancer?

Infection with HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer. Other factors, such as having a weakened immune system, can also play a role.

Can you prevent cervical cancer?

There’s no guaranteed way to prevent cervical cancer, but you can lower your risk with steps such as getting the HPV vaccine, having regular cervical cancer screenings, and practicing safe sex.

Is cervical cancer treatable?

Precancer is very treatable, and treating precancer prevents cervical cancer. This means that regular screening can stop cervical cancer before it ever fully develops and can treat the cancer before it has harmed your body.

Cervical cancer begins with changes to the cells in the cervix. These changes are called precancer, and although they don’t always turn into cancer, treating them ensures they never will. Cervical cancer screening can find these changes. They can then be treated, preventing cancer development.

This is why regular cervical cancer screening is so important. Both the ACS and the USPSTF recommend screening about every 3–5 years depending on the test you receive and on your specific circumstances. Your doctor can give you more personalized guidelines.