In honor of Cervical Health Awareness Month, we would like to share some women’s health reminders. All women are at risk for cervical cancer although it occurs most often in women older than 30. Each year 12,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer and for one third of women diagnosed, it is fatal.
In recent years, we have seen a decrease in the number of cases of cervical cancer and the number of deaths from cervical cancer. This decline largely is the result of many women receiving routine Pap testing. The Pap test, commonly referred to as the Pap smear, is formally known as the Papanicolaou test.
The Pap test looks for precancers, or cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if not treated. The only cancer for which the Pap test screens is cervical cancer. It does not screen for ovarian, uterine, vaginal or vulvar cancers.
The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends the Pap test for all women between 21 and 65. Human papillomavirus, or HPV, testing may be done during the same time as a Pap test. Free or low-cost Pap testing is available through the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.
Women older than 65 who have had normal Pap test results for several years, or who have had their cervix removed as part of a total hysterectomy for non-cancerous conditions, like fibroids, may not need to have routine Pap tests.
If a woman has not had a Pap test in the last 12 months and cervical screening is directed, a Pap test should be obtained as part of the routine pelvic examination. Many women think they will be receiving a pelvic examination during their Pap test but this is not always the case. Be sure to ask if a sample for Pap testing was taken during a pelvic examination.
HPV tests are recommended for women younger than 21 who have had abnormal Pap test results. Additionally, these tests can be used in conjunction with a Pap test for cervical cancer screening of women older than 30. These tests should not be done on women younger than 20 for screening or management of abnormal Pap tests or for STD screening.
The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers and is recommended for preteens of both sexes, between the ages of 11 to 12 years, but can be given as early as age 9 and until age 26. The vaccine is given in a series of either two or three shots, depending on age. It is important to note that even women who are vaccinated against HPV need to have regular Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer.
Other factors that can increase the risk of cervical cancer:
• Having HIV
• Long term use of birth control pills
• Having three or more children
• Having several sexual partners
Patients can contact their primary care provider with any questions or concerns and ask if they are due for a Pap test at their next routine medical appointment.
Tanya Weber, RN, is the care coordinator at Summit Pacific Medical Center in Elma.