During your visit with a family planning provider, you may get screened for breast and/or cervical cancer.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women, aside from skin cancer. Men can get breast cancer too, but it’s not as common. When it’s found early—before it has spread to other parts of the body— treatment is more likely to be successful.
The most important thing you can do for your breast health is regular screening. Speak to your healthcare provider about what exams you might need and how often you might need them.
What’s breast cancer screening like?
Breast cancer screening begins with a clinical breast exam and medical and family history. Medical and family histories are used to figure out if you have an increased risk of breast cancer due to:
- Family history of breast cancer
- Previous breast cancer
- For women, beginning their periods at an early age (before 12), and beginning menopause at a later age (after 55)
- Late pregnancies and not breastfeeding
- Drinking alcohol
- Being overweight
During a clinical breast exam, your provider will check for lumps, swelling and other signs of cancer. They will also look for other risk factors—women with dense breasts have a higher risk for breast cancer, for example.
A lump in the breast or armpit is one possible sign of breast cancer, but it’s not the only one. It also doesn’t always mean breast cancer; it could be a cyst or another benign growth. Other possible signs of breast cancer include:
- Changes in the breasts’ size or shape
- Fluid leaking from the nipples
- Red or pitted skin on the breasts
- Pain in the breast
- Nipple turning inward
- Swollen breasts
Your provider may also talk with you about becoming familiar with the way your breasts normally look and feel, so you can notice any changes. Keep in mind that most breast lumps are not cancerous, but if you do see or feel anything that seems abnormal, talk with your provider.
What about a mammogram?
A mammogram is a special type of X-ray that healthcare practitioners use to take a closer look at any lumps in the breast or armpit, or any other abnormal signs.
If your health care provider recommends that you have a mammogram, you will be referred to an imaging center for that service.
The cervix is a donut-shaped passage between the uterus and the vagina. Cervical cancer is much less common than it once was, thanks in part to regular screenings.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the top cause of cervical cancer. It’s also the most common sexually transmitted infection. Although there are more than 100 types of HPV, two types cause 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. Most of the time, HPV infections have no symptoms, so that’s why you need to get screened regularly for HPV and cervical cancer.
The HPV vaccine protects against about 90% of cervical cancers; however, women who have been vaccinated still need to be screened for cervical cancer because HPV vaccines do not protect against all HPV types that can cause cancer. Screening continues to be essential to detect precancerous changes in cervical cells before they develop into cancer.
What’s cervical cancer screening like?
Cervical screening is known as a Pap test or Pap smear. Your healthcare provider will take a small sample of cells from the cervix using a cotton swab. The sample will be sent to a lab and the cells will be looked at under a microscope to make sure they are growing normally. You will be notified of the results of your test, and should anything abnormal be observed you will be scheduled for a follow-up visit.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that women between 21 and 29 have a Pap test every three years. Women 30 and older can have one every five years, along with an HPV test, or every three years without an HPV test. Cervical cancer grows slowly, so regular Pap tests can often catch any cancer while it’s still in an early stage and is easier to treat.
Where to Get Screened
Find a health center near you to talk to a healthcare provider about getting screened for breast or cervical cancer. You can find at least one in all 21 counties in New Jersey.