Cervical Cancer Screening
Every year women are advised to see their gynecologist for their annual pap smear. Have you ever wondered, what exactly is a pap smear? What does a pap smear test for? “Pap smear” is the name of the test used to collect surface cells on your cervix to determine if you are at risk for cervical cancer. The pap smear is a screening tool, which means it cannot give you an official diagnosis but it alerts your provider if you need further testing. A common misconception is that the pap smear tests for all female reproductive cancers. Women are at risk for cervical, ovarian, and uterine cancer. The pap smear only screens for cervical cancer which is not hereditary. It is caused by a sexually transmitted virus called Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). If you have tested positive for HPV this does not mean you will have cervical cancer. In fact, most women are able to clear the virus and never develop cancer. However, it does mean that you need to see your gynecologist yearly to make sure it does not progress to cancer. Depending on your abnormal results you may also need a cervical biopsy, known as a colposcopy, for an official diagnosis.
Recently you may have noticed a change in recommendations on how often you need a pap smear. Previously it was recommended to have a pap smear collected yearly. However in 2012, research showed that most women can clear the HPV virus on their own and many women were receiving unnecessary procedures to treat abnormalities they would have cleared. It was because of this research that the screening guidelines were changed. Women age 21-29, with no history of abnormal pap smears, need a pap smear every 3 years. Women age 30-64, without a history of abnormal pap smears, should have a pap smear every 5 years. Women age 65 and older no longer need a pap smear if they have had no precancerous results in the last 20 years. It is important to note that a history of an abnormal pap smear will affect these recommendations and likely result in an increased frequency in pap smear collection as well as potential biopsies and treatments as needed. Special populations also have different screening guidelines. Your gynecologist will discuss these recommendations with you if necessary.
Pap smear collection time frames have changed and we are constantly ensuring our patients are cared for with up to date, evidence based guidelines. Cervical cancer is treatable when caught early, and routine pap smear collection is essential for early detection. Regardless of when your pap smear is due, it is important that you see your gynecologist annually for a breast and pelvic exam and to discuss any other gynecological concerns you may have.
Antoinette Ferry, APRN