Unless you’ve just entered your twenties, you probably remember when a Pap smear or Pap test was a required component of your annual gynecology checkup. Now, the guidelines have changed to make Pap tests something that can be done every 3 years in most women. If Pap smears aren’t needed as often, are they less important? Absolutely not. A Pap test still serves a very critical role in screening women for cervical cancer.
First it is important to understand cervical cancer. Cervical cancer can be deadly if not found and treated at an early stage. Fortunately, pap tests are a proven screening method for not only detecting existing cervical cancer but also preventing it. A pap smear can reveal abnormal cervical cell changes (pre-cancers) so that they can be treated before they actually turn into cancer. When found at early stages, cervical cancer is one of the most treatable cancers known.
Due to the effectiveness of Pap tests, the cervical cancer death rate in the United States has declined by more than 50% over the last 30 years. The recent changes in Pap test frequency does not make the cancer screening less effective for you. It often takes up 3 to 7 years for high grade changes in cervical cells to turn into cancer. Your physician will recommend a screening schedule based on the severity of changes in your cervical cells, if any.
The newest guidelines for Pap smears include screening schedules based on a woman’s age and health history:
- Women aged 21–29 years should have a Pap test alone every 3 years. HPV testing is not recommended.
- Women aged 30–65 years should have a Pap test and an HPV test (co-testing) every 5 years (preferred). It also is acceptable to have a Pap test alone every 3 years.
Remember that abnormal cervical cancer screening results does not mean you have cancer. It may mean that the test needs to be repeated or you need to be monitored more closely. In some cases, a colposcopy and cervical biopsy may be recommended to accurately evaluate the cervical cell abnormality. At North Pointe OB/GYN, we have a team of highly skilled physicians who use the most advanced techniques and technology available when screening for cervical cancer. We have helped countless women in preventing cervical cancer as well as giving them the most successful treatment opportunity.