What Is Cancer?
Cancer is a term used for diseases in which abnormal cells divide without control and can invade other tissues. Cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph systems. Cancer is not just one disease, but many diseases. There are more than 100 kinds of cancer. For more information, visit the National Cancer Institute’s What Is Cancer?
How Can Cancer Be Prevented?
The number of new cancer cases can be reduced and many cancer deaths can be prevented. Research shows that screening for cervical and colorectal cancers as recommended helps prevent these diseases by finding precancerous lesions so they can be treated before they become cancerous. Screening for cervical, colorectal, and breast cancers also helps find these diseases at an early stage, when treatment works best. CDC offers free or low-cost mammograms and Pap tests nationwide, and free or low-cost colorectal cancer screening in six states.
Vaccines (shots) also help lower cancer risk. The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine helps prevent most cervical cancers and several other kinds of cancer, and the hepatitis B vaccine can help lower liver cancer risk.
A person’s cancer risk can be reduced with healthy choices like avoiding tobacco, limiting alcohol use, protecting your skin from the sun and avoiding indoor tanning, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, keeping a healthy weight, and being physically active.
What Should I Know About Screening?
Cervical cancer is the easiest gynecologic cancer to prevent, with regular screening tests and follow-up. Two screening tests can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early—
- The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers, cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.
- The HPV test looks for the virus (human papillomavirus) that can cause these cell changes.
The Pap test is recommended for all women between the ages of 21 and 65 years old, and can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic. During the Pap test, the doctor will use a plastic or metal instrument, called a speculum, to widen your vagina. This helps the doctor examine the vagina and the cervix, and collect a few cells and mucus from the cervix and the area around it. The cells are then placed on a slide or in a bottle of liquid and sent to a laboratory. The laboratory will check to be sure that the cells are normal.
If you get the HPV test along with the Pap test, the cells collected during the Pap test will be tested for HPV at the laboratory. Talk with your doctor, nurse, or other health care professional about whether the HPV test is right for you.
When you have a Pap test, the doctor may also perform a pelvic exam, checking your uterus, ovaries, and other organs to make sure there are no problems. There are times when your doctor may perform a pelvic exam without giving you a Pap test. Ask your doctor which tests you are having, if you are unsure.
If you have a low income or do not have health insurance, you may be able to get a free or low-cost Pap test through the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. Find out if you qualify.
When to Get Screened
You should start getting regular Pap tests at age 21. The Pap test, which screens for cervical cancer, is one of the most reliable and effective cancer screening tests available.
The only cancer for which the Pap test screens is cervical cancer. It does not screen for ovarian, uterine, vaginal, or vulvar cancers. So even if you have a Pap test regularly, if you notice any signs or symptoms that are unusual for you, see a doctor to find out why you’re having them. If your Pap test results are normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait three years until your next Pap test.
If you are 30 years old or older, you may choose to have an HPV test along with the Pap test. Both tests can be performed by your doctor at the same time. When both tests are performed together, it is called co-testing. If your test results are normal, your chance of getting cervical cancer in the next few years is very low. Your doctor may then tell you that you can wait as long as five years for your next screening. But you should still go to the doctor regularly for a checkup.
If you are 21 to 65 years old, it is important for you to continue getting a Pap test as directed by your doctor—even if you think you are too old to have a child or are not having sex anymore. If you are older than 65 and have had normal Pap test results for several years, or if you have had your cervix removed as part of a total hysterectomy for non-cancerous conditions, like fibroids, your doctor may tell you that you do not need to have a Pap test anymore.
It can take as long as three weeks to receive your test results. If your test shows that something might not be normal, your doctor will contact you and figure out how best to follow up. There are many reasons why test results might not be normal. It usually does not mean you have cancer.
If your test results show cells that are not normal and may become cancer, your doctor will let you know if you need to be treated. In most cases, treatment prevents cervical cancer from developing. It is important to follow up with your doctor right away to learn more about your test results and receive any treatment that may be needed.
Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines
The Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines chart[PDF-175KB] compares recommendations from the American Cancer Society, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists regarding—
- When to start screening.
- Screening methods and intervals.
- When to stop screening.
- Screening after a total hysterectomy.
- Pelvic exams.
- Screening among women who have been vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV).
What Is a Mammogram?
A mammogram is an X-ray picture of the breast. Doctors use a mammogram to look for early signs of breast cancer. Regular mammograms are the best tests doctors have to find breast cancer early, sometimes up to three years before it can be felt.
How is a mammogram done?
You will stand in front of a special X-ray machine. A technologist will place your breast on a clear plastic plate. Another plate will firmly press your breast from above. The plates will flatten the breast, holding it still while the X-ray is being taken. You will feel some pressure. The steps are repeated to make a side view of the breast. The other breast will be X-rayed in the same way. You will then wait while the technologist checks the four X-rays to make sure the pictures do not need to be re-done. Keep in mind that the technologist cannot tell you the results of your mammogram. Each woman’s mammogram may look a little different because all breasts are a little different.
What does having a mammogram feel like?
Having a mammogram is uncomfortable for most women. Some women find it painful. A mammogram takes only a few moments, though, and the discomfort is over soon. What you feel depends on the skill of the technologist, the size of your breasts, and how much they need to be pressed. Your breasts may be more sensitive if you are about to get or have your period. A doctor with special training, called a radiologist, will read the mammogram. He or she will look at the X-ray for early signs of breast cancer or other problems.
Tips for Getting a Mammogram
- Try not to have your mammogram the week before you get your period or during your period. Your breasts may be tender or swollen then.
- On the day of your mammogram, don’t wear deodorant, perfume, or powder. These products can show up as white spots on the X-ray.
- Some women prefer to wear a top with a skirt or pants, instead of a dress. You will need to undress from your waist up for the mammogram.
When will I get the results of my mammogram?
You will usually get the results within a few weeks, although it depends on the facility. A radiologist reads your mammogram and then reports the results to you or your doctor. If there is a concern, you will hear from the mammography facility earlier. Contact your health care provider or the mammography facility if you do not receive a report of your results within 30 days.
What happens if my mammogram is normal?
Continue to get mammograms according to recommended time intervals. Mammograms work best when they can be compared with previous ones. This allows the radiologist to compare them to look for changes in your breasts.
What happens if my mammogram is abnormal?
An abnormal mammogram does not always mean that there is cancer. But you will need to have additional mammograms, tests, or exams before the doctor can tell for sure. You may also be referred to a breast specialist or a surgeon. It does not necessarily mean you have cancer or need surgery. These doctors are experts in diagnosing breast problems. Doctors will do follow-up tests to diagnose breast cancer or to find that there is no cancer.
What Is Colorectal Cancer Screening?
A screening test is used to look for a disease when a person doesn’t have symptoms. (When a person has symptoms, diagnostic tests are used to find out the cause of the symptoms.)
Colorectal cancer almost always develops from precancerous polyps (abnormal growths) in the colon or rectum. Screening tests can find precancerous polyps, so that they can be removed before they turn into cancer. Screening tests can also find colorectal cancer early, when treatment works best.
Regular screening, beginning at age 50, is the key to preventing colorectal cancer. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that adults age 50 to 75 be screened for colorectal cancer, and that adults age 76 to 85 ask their doctor if they should be screened.
When Should I Begin to Get Screened?
You should begin screening for colorectal cancer soon after turning 50, then continue getting screened at regular intervals. However, you may need to be tested earlier than 50, or more often than other people, if—
- You or a close relative have had colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer.
- You have an inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
- You have a genetic syndrome such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome).
If you think you are at increased risk for colorectal cancer, speak with your doctor about when to begin screening, which test is right for you, and how often to get tested.
Free or Low-Cost Screening
Six states in CDC’s Colorectal Cancer Control Program provide colorectal cancer screening to low-income men and women aged 50 to 64 years who are underinsured or uninsured for screening, when resources are available and there is no other payment option.
Colorectal cancer screening tests may be covered by your health insurance policy without a deductible or co-pay.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccine
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine for females aged 9 to 26 and males aged 9 to 21. It protects against the HPV types that most often cause cervical,vaginal, vulvar, and anal cancers. The HPV vaccine does not substitute for routine cervical cancer screening (Pap tests), according to recommended screening guidelines. Currently, screening tests for other types of HPV-associated cancers are not recommended.
For information on who should get the HPV vaccination, see HPV Vaccines.
Hepatitis B Vaccine
Hepatitis B is a liver disease caused by the Hepatitis B virus (HBV). It ranges in severity from a mild illness, lasting a few weeks (acute), to a serious long-term (chronic) illness that can lead to liver disease or liver cancer. The hepatitis B vaccine is available for all age groups to prevent HBV infection.
Find a Screening Provider Near You
CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP) provides breast and cervical cancer screenings and diagnostic services to low-income, uninsured, and underinsured women across the United States.
Search for free and low-cost screenings in your state, tribe, or territory—use the interactive map to find local contacts for breast and cervical cancer screening.
What Services Does the NBCCEDP Provide?
Local NBCCEDP programs offer the following services for eligible women—
- Clinical breast examinations.
- Pap tests.
- Pelvic examinations.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) tests.
- Diagnostic testing if results are abnormal.
- Referrals to treatment.
Who Should Get Breast and Cervical Cancer Screenings?
All women are at risk for breast and cervical cancer, but regular screenings can prevent these diseases or find them early. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has established the following guidelines for screening, but you should talk with your health care provider how often you should get screened.
- Breast cancer: Women between 50 and 74 years old should get a mammogram every two years. Those under 50 should talk with their provider about when they should be screened.
- Cervical cancer: Women should get their first Pap test at age 21 and continue screening until age 65.
Are You Eligible for Free or Low-Cost Screenings?
You may be eligible for free or low-cost screenings if you meet these qualifications—
- You are between 40 and 64 years of age for breast cancer screening.
- You are between 21 and 64 years of age for cervical cancer screening.
- You have no insurance, or your insurance does not cover screening exams.
- Your yearly income is at or below 250% of the federal poverty level.