Doctors recommend that all women begin annual Pap smears at the age of 18, or when they become sexually active. After three consecutive negative tests, health care practitioners may perform the test less often (e.g., every 2 or 3 years).
Early diagnosis of cervical cancer is essential for successful treatment of the condition. Your family doctor can arrange any tests that are necessary for initial diagnosis, and refer you to a specialist who will be able to give you gynaecological treatment and advice. Health professionals who can evaluate your symptoms and your risk factors, and who can diagnose cervical cancer include:
Diagnosis of cervical cancer includes a pelvic examination and a Papanicolaou test (Pap smear). In women over the age of 30, cervical cancer screening involves a test to detect high-risk HPV infection. An HPV test also may be performed in women younger than 30 years of age who have an inconclusive Pap smear.
Colposcopy- If your doctor suspects the presence of cervical or if high-risk HPV infection is present, a procedure called a colposcopy is requested. During a colpscopy, the cervix is washed with a diluted vinegar solution and examined for abnormalities using a light and a magnifying device (colposcope). If abnormal areas are detected, further evaluation is necessary.
Pap smear - During a Pap smear, or Pap test, your doctor removes cells from the surface of the cervix using a spatula, cotton swab, or brush. The cells are placed on a glass slide for microscopic evaluation in a laboratory. For accurate results, the test should be performed 2 weeks after your menstrual period has ended and at least 48 hours after sexual intercourse.
Pelvic examination - During a pelvic exam, the vagina and adjacent organs are examined visually and bimanually (using both hands). Visual examination is performed using a speculum (instrument that is warmed and used to separate tissue) inserted into the vagina. Next, the pelvic organs are felt with the finger with gloved fingers of one hand in the vagina and the other hand on the abdomen.
Regular Pap test screening is the most important tool in identifying and treating cervical cell changes before they progress to cervical cancer. If you have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, be sure to update your doctor if you develop problems, new symptoms, or if symptoms get worse. Once a diagnosis of cervical cancer is made, the cancer is staged. To learn more about the stages of cervical cancer, read the next section on Staging Cervical Cancer that follows.