Testing for breast and cervical cancer
Preventive recommendations from Aurora Health Care
- When you turn 40, talk with your provider about when to start mammograms. You should begin regular mammograms no later than age 50. You may have testing earlier or more often based on your risk factors, preferences and provider's recommendations.
- Pap testing should start at age 21 and should continue to at least age 65. If you are ages 21 to 29, you should be tested at least every 2 years. If you are age 30 or older, you should be tested at least every 3 years. Pap testing may be done more often or may be stopped based on age, risk factors and your provider's recommendations.
Why is a mammogram so important?
A mammogram is an x-ray picture of the inside of the breast. It can find cancer at a very early stage—long before a lump would be felt during an exam. When cancer is found very early, the chance for a cure is much better.
How should you prepare for your mammogram?
- When you schedule, be sure you know the date of your last mammogram, as most insurance companies cover only one screening every 12 months.
- Before your test, do not put deodorant, powders, or perfume under your arms or in the chest area.
- Wear a two-piece outfit if you can. You'll be asked to remove your clothes from the waist up.
How is it done?
Using a large x-ray machine, a technician will take pictures of each breast. This is done by pressing the breast between two plates, first from top to bottom and then from side to side. Be sure to tell the technician if you have breast implants – special pictures may be needed. The test should take about 10 to 15 minutes. Ask your health care provider how and when you will get your test results.
Why is it necessary to press on the breasts so much?
Compression of the breasts is done to get the best pictures with the least amount of radiation. It can hurt for a short time, but it allows the best chance for finding a problem.
What if you feel sore after the test?
If your breasts ache after your test, ask your health care provider about taking aspirin or an aspirin substitute. You may notice a slight change in skin color from the compression, but this should go away within days.
Are there risks in having a mammogram?
There are no known significant risks when guidelines are followed. The dose of radiation is low, and the test will not damage breast tissue.
What can you do to help decrease your chances for breast cancer?
Discuss your risk factors with your health care provider. Risk factors for breast cancer may include:
- Growing older
- Personal history of breast cancer
- Breast cancer in the family (especially mother or sister)
- Abnormal breast exams or mammograms in the past
- No children, or having children at a late age
- Diet high in fat
- Prolonged exposure to estrogen (early onset of period, late menopause, long-term birth control, estrogen therapy)
Ask your health care provider how and when you will get your test results. And be sure to follow his or her advice on how often you should have a mammogram.
What is a Pap test?
The Pap test, or Pap smear, is a simple screening test for cancer of the cervix. The cervix is the bottom part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. When cancer of the cervix is found early, chances for a cure are good.
What causes cervical cancer?
Nine out of ten cases are caused by a virus called HPV (human papillomavirus). HPV is common in men and women – most adults are infected at some time in their lives. A protective vaccine now exists for adolescent girls and young women.
The virus can be passed through sexual contact. HPV infection has no symptoms, so most women do not know they have it. Most infections go away on their own. But if HPV does not go away, it can cause changes in the cells of the cervix that can lead to cancer.
How should you prepare for a Pap test?
- If you still have periods, it's best to have a Pap test about two weeks after your menstrual flow stops.
- Do not use sprays, douches, lubricants, or medications in the vaginal area for 3 days before your test.
- Do not have sex for 24 hours before your test.
How is it done?
You will lie on a table with your legs apart and your feet in stirrups. An instrument called a speculum is used to spread the vagina so the cervix can be seen. Then the cervix is scraped gently to obtain a sample of cells. The cells are placed on a microscope slide and sent to the lab for testing. Ask your health care provider when and how you will get your test results.
The Pap test is quick and most often done as part of a complete pelvic exam. Sometimes there is a small amount of discomfort for you.
What if the test results are not normal?
An abnormal Pap test does not always mean cancer. It could be that an infection is present. Or it could be a "false negative" result from a problem with the test itself. Your health care provider will discuss your results and let you know if further testing will be needed.
What else should you know?
Always tell your health care provider about:
- Any unusual vaginal discharge
- Too much bleeding during your period
- Bleeding in between periods
- Pelvic pain
- Rectal bleeding
These are not always signs of cancer—but they can be. Be sure to follow your health care provider's advice on how often you should have a Pap test.
- National Cancer Institute
- National Breast Cancer Awareness Month
- National Women's Health Information Center