Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines Have Changed
Ladies, don’t be confused. While annual Pap smears (the test that screens for cervical cancer) are no longer needed, you still need an annual pelvic exam.
“The Pap smear is only a part of the pelvic exam,” explains Rachel Kramer, MD, a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist who delivers babies at Virtua Memorial Hospital. “During your exam, your doctor also checks for skin cancer, uterine masses, sexually transmitted infections, cervical polyps, breast cancer, and more.”
It’s also a great opportunity to identify and treat conditions early, and talk to your doctor about upcoming changes. For example, if you’re planning to get pregnant or are nearing menopause, your doctor can help you prepare. “It’s important for you to be able to talk to your doctor about anything and everything,” says Dr. Kramer.
What are the Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines?
“A woman should get her first Pap smear when she is 21 years old and continue screening every 3 years. After age 30, a woman should get a Pap smear every 5 years,” advises Dr. Kramer.
Women age 65 and older who’ve had 3 normal consecutive Pap smears never need to be tested again. “Screening may be continued after age 65 if the woman is sexually active, especially with a new partner,” clarifies Dr. Kramer. If this describes your situation, check with your insurance for coverage.
While these are the general guidelines, there are exceptions. If you have a history of abnormal Pap smears or have been diagnosed with a condition, like HIV, that weakens the immune system, you may need to be screened more often. Also, if you are over 65 and have had high levels of cervical abnormality, you may need to continue regular screenings.
Why is Cervical Cancer Screening Important?
Pap smears detect the presence of HPVs, or human papillomaviruses that cause genital warts, non-cancerous tumors, and cervical, anal, penile, and throat cancers.
HPVs are spread by sexual contact and, today, virtually everyone has one type of the virus. “While there are more than 150 related HPVs, only 14 types cause cancer,” explains Dr. Kramer. “HPVs 16 and 18 are responsible for 90 percent of cervical cancers.”
Why Have the Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines Changed?
For a condition that’s so wide spread, it may seem counterintuitive to be screened less often. But, Dr. Kramer reassures you that the updated guidelines are based on years of scientific research.
Here’s what we now know about cervical cancer screening:
- The Pap smear is more accurate than ever before.
- HPVs that cause cancer are slow growing.
- The body’s immune system can fight off HPVs.
- More frequent screening can lead to unnecessary treatments.
- HPV treatments such as cone biopsies or surgical removal can cause complications during pregnancy.
What Do I Need to Do Now?
If you have questions or concerns about cervical cancer screening, call your healthcare provider. If you need to schedule your annual pelvic exam, call 1-888-VIRTUA-3 (1-888-847-8823).
Updated March 22, 2017