A Pap Smear Is An Important Screening Tool To Prevent Cervical Cancer
By Kaveeta Vinaya Kumar, M.D., MBA
Getting regularly scheduled pap smears is an effective method for preventing and detecting cancer of the cervix (the cylinder of tissue that connects the vagina and uterus).
A pap smear is a simple, painless test to screen for precancerous lesions on the cervix, as well as actual cancer.
Pap smears save lives. Cervical cancer progresses very slowly and pap smears alert doctors to abnormal cells that can be treated before they actually become cancerous. In the last fifty years, due to widespread screening, the incidence of cervical cancer has fallen almost fifty percent in the United States.
Still, there are about 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer each year; about thirty percent are in women who did not receive adequate screening. Cervical cancer results in 4,000 deaths each year.
The vast majority of cervical cancer is linked to the human papillomavirus or HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States.
In most cases, HPV goes away on its own. But when it recurs or persists, it can cause health problems, including genital warts and cancer of the cervix, vulva or anus. There are several factors that put a woman at higher risk for cervical cancer. In addition to HPV, they include smoking, HIV/AIDS and other conditions that challenge the immune system. Hispanic and African-American women also have a higher incidence of cervical cancer.
Start screenings at age 21 up to age 65
Most women who are diagnosed with these types of cancer are between 35-65 years of age but screening typically begins at age 21 and continues until a woman is 65. For women aged 21-29, screening is once every three years. Between ages 30-65, screening is every three years; or every five years if there is no HPV present.
Women stop having pap smears at age 65 if they have had three consecutive normal pap smears or two normal pap smears with negative HPV screening within the past ten years, with the most recent test being within the past five years.
Treatment for an abnormal pap smear
Treatment for patients who have abnormal pap smears depends on age and the severity of the abnormality. If a woman is age 21-24 and has a low level of abnormality, she will be monitored and the test will be repeated in a year.
If she is over 24 or the pap smear shows a higher level of abnormal cells, a colposcopy will be scheduled. A colposcopy is an office procedure in which the doctor uses a special instrument to closely examine the cervix, vagina and vulva for signs of disease. If abnormal cells are detected, your doctor will review your treatment options with you.
Pap smear testing is simple
The pap smear is a simple, in-office procedure which is covered by insurance plans. And there are no co-pays for annual visits under the Affordable Care Act. There are additional state funded programs that cover women who do not have insurance for some reason.
We have made great strides in detecting, preventing and treating cervical cancer. But it’s equally important to stop HPV, the virus that causes most cervical cancers.
A highly effective HPV vaccine is recommended for girls and boys age 11–12, but is available to patients between the ages of 9-26. The vaccine can prevent young people from getting—and spreading—the virus. If 80 percent of children are vaccinated, we can prevent 50,000 cervical cancer cases. But so far, only 30 percent of the young people who would benefit have received the complete three-dose vaccine. The optimum age is between age 11-12, be sure to talk to your child’s pediatrician about it.
So get your pap smear now. And encourage young people to get their HPV vaccines. Screenings and vaccinations save lives.
Kaveeta Vinaya Kumar, M.D., MBA, is board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology.
To make an appointment for a regular screening or other OB-GYN concerns, contact:
Women’s Health Practice
501 W. 14th Street
Wilmington, DE 19801