Lowering your risk for cervical cancer is pretty straightforward: Get regular Pap tests. Cervical cancer is preventable if detected and treated early.
Regular Pap tests detect cervical cancer before it develops. In fact, most women who get cervical cancer had not had a Pap test in the past five years, or ever.
“Pap tests are one of the true public health victories in the last 100 years. Cervical cancer used to be common. Now, it’s fairly rare,” said Dr. Jim Summers, OB-GYN with The Memorial Hospital Medical Clinic. Women should get a Pap test every three to five years starting at age 21. After age 65, Pap tests can cease if a woman has had three normal results in a row, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
“ACOG used to recommend Pap tests annually, but we know so much more about how pre-cancers behave today that it isn’t needed as often,” Summers added. Yet as with mammograms, doctors can decide to test more frequently.
A big player in cervical cancer is human papillomavirus, or HPV — a common sexually transmitted disease. More than half of all sexually active men and women will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. The virus has been linked to about 70 percent of all cervical cancers.
“Usually, HPV infections clear on their own, but when we get an abnormal Pap test, we often check for HPV. We know that HPV is central to the vast majority of cervical abnormalities. That’s why it is so important to get checked for HPV regularly and to use barrier contraception when sexually active,” Summers said.
It’s normal to feel nervous if you get an abnormal Pap result, but most of the time, it is not cancer. It may mean you have an infection or abnormal cells, which is called dysplasia. Approximately one in 10 Pap tests come back abnormal. Treatment ranges from a wait-and-see approach that involves another Pap test in the near future to a diagnostic biopsy.
“Most of the time, an abnormal Pap result is benign. The test is not 100 percent accurate, and there will be occasional false positives. It is usually a signal for us to do further testing,” Summers said.
You can protect yourself against the HPV virus by getting an HPV vaccine. Check with your doctor at your next annual exam.
While teenage girls do not officially need a gynecological exam or Pap test until they become sexually active or reach the age of 21, it is a good idea to introduce them to the habit of an annual exam.
“I think it’s a great idea for mothers to talk to daughters about the upcoming visit and any tests they may be getting — and to talk about changes girls go through while they are maturing,” Summers said.
TMH Medical Clinic offers comprehensive gynecological services, including surgeries for incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse. For an appointment with either Dr. Summers or Dr. Scott Ellis, call the clinic at 970-826-2400.
This weekly article with tips on living well is sponsored by The Memorial Hospital at Craig — improving the quality of life for the communities we serve through patient-centered health care and service excellence.