Cervical cancer is a disease in which cancer cells grow in the cervix. Fortunately, cervical cancer can be prevented if precancerous cell changes are detected and treated early.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the primary cause of nearly all cases of cervical cancer. HPV can be passed from one person to another through sexual contact.

In most cases, the HPV virus is harmless and causes no symptoms. In fact, many young women who become infected with HPV are able to clear the infection through their own immune systems. However, certain high-risk types of HPV can cause cervical lesions. Over time, these might develop into cancer if untreated.

The Pap test is used to detect cancerous and precancerous cervical lesions. Unfortunately, the Pap test has been associated with false negative results in some cases.

In a false negative, the test indicates the Pap test is normal when, in fact, there is an abnormality. Women with abnormal results need further testing.

The HPV test can be used in conjunction with the Pap test. The test determines the presence or absence of HPV and whether or not the HPV type present is the type that is associated with cancer.

The HPV test is collected similar to a Pap test. A cervical brush or other collection device is inserted into the cervix to collect cells for testing. This sample is then sent to the lab for evaluation.

A negative result means that high-risk, cancer-causing types of HPV were not detected. Therefore, your risk of developing high-grade cervical disease before your next routine visit is extremely low.

A positive HPV result might mean an increased risk of developing cervical cancer if the precancerous type is present. In this case, further examination will be needed in order to determine whether your cervix shows precancerous or cancerous changes.

If no changes are detected, you will be closely monitored to make sure that any changes are detected as early as possible. If precancerous changes are detected, you should know that several highly effective treatment options are available.

Screening guidelines:

In your 20s: Get an HPV vaccine if you were not immunized as an adolescent (by age 26) and a Pap test every three years, usually without HPV test.

In your 30s, 40s and 50s: Get a Pap test and HPV testing every five years or Pap test alone every three years.

In your 60s and older: If you’ve tested normal for the past 10 years and have no history of abnormal pap test, you may stop screenings after age 65.

Each woman has individual circumstances and risk factors. Talk to your doctor about how often you should be screened for cervical cancer.

Dr. Stephanie Tootle is an OB-GYN who sees patients at Memorial Health University Physicians Women’s Care Islands. Memorial HealthDoctors.com.