4 reasons to check for cervical cancer

Women have been getting Pap smears for decades.1 And with good reason. It has been one of the most effective screening tests for cervical cancer. Since women began getting regular Pap smears, the death rates from cervical cancer have dropped significantly, according to the American Cancer Society.2

Women used to be advised to get a Pap smear every year during their annual checkup. Not anymore. Because it can take years for cervical cancer to develop, the guidelines have recently changed. Plus, there’s now an HPV test that checks for the virus.2,3

What is cervical cancer and how’s it found

When abnormal cells found within the lining of the cervix — the area within the lower part of the uterus — grow out of control, this can be a cause for concern.4

Most of the time, abnormal changes are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI).4 In fact, roughly 80% of women will get at least 1 type of HPV infection over the course of their lives.5

However, most of those HPV infections won’t lead to cancer. They’ll likely clear up on their own, even if they do cause some abnormal cell changes. But some, known as high-risk types, can cause cervical cancer — as well as cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, penis and throat.5

Screening options and how are they done

In order to evaluate changes in cervical tissue, Pap smears (or tests) look for abnormal cells, while the HPV tests examine if you have strains of HPV that likely cause cancer.6

Both exams are simple and relatively quick, even if it may not feel like it. Typically, you’ll lie on a table in your provider’s exam room or clinic. The provider inserts a speculum — a device used to examine hollow openings7 — into the vagina and then takes a sample. Those cell samples are sent to a lab to check for abnormal changes or an HPV infection.6

Here’s a look at the newest guidelines, plus 4 reasons to still get regular Pap smears.

When to get screened

How often you need a screening depends on your age, as well as your previous screening results. But just because you’re not getting Pap smears every year doesn’t mean you can skip your annual ob-gyn visit.

"We'll still want to do a pelvic and breast exam." says Faina Gelman-Nisanov, M.D., an obstetrician/gynecologist in New Jersey. “It’s also a good time to bring up any other concerns you have, like vaginal dryness.”

Under age 30

You should get your first Pap smear at 21. This is true regardless of your sexual history. If the results are normal, you can usually wait 3 years before getting your next Pap test.6

Ages 30 to 65

If you’re in this age group, you have a few options:3

  • An HPV test only. If the result is normal, your doctor may suggest you wait 5 years until your next screening test.
  • A Pap smear only. If this result is normal, you may be able to go 3 years until your next Pap smear.
  • Both an HPV test and a Pap smear. This is known as co-testing. If both results are normal, you may be able to wait 5 years until your next screening test.

Whichever you choose, it’s important to stay on top of your screenings. “Women in this age group often don’t get rid of the HPV virus as well as they did when they were younger,” says Dr. Gelman-Nisanov. As a result, they’re more likely to develop cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer.

Over age 65

According to The American College of Obstetricians, you may not need to get a Pap smear or HPV test if the following is true for you:3

  • You’ve had 2 or 3 normal Pap smears in a row, depending on the type of test
  • You’ve never had abnormal cervical cells or you’ve had your cervix removed

Talk to your provider and together you can decide whether to continue testing.

4 reasons to keep getting a Pap smear

1. Lower your risk of cervical cancer

The main reason to get a Pap smear? To lower the risk of developing cervical cancer or finding it early.4 You may think you’re not at risk because of your age, sexual history or marital state. But no matter the situation, you still may need to get screened — depending on your age, both for cervical cancer and HPV.

2. You’re younger than 65 and monogamous

You may not think it’s necessary to keep getting Pap smears if you’ve only been with one partner for decades. But it can take years for an HPV infection to show up in a Pap smear, explains Dr. Gelman-Nisanov.

Then there’s always the chance your partner could be unfaithful. “Unfortunately, there are situations where a woman learns that she has HPV and then subsequently learns of a partner’s infidelity,” says Dr. Gelman-Nisanov. It’s heartbreaking, for sure. But it’s better to protect your health than to assume anything.

3. You have certain medical conditions

If you have a weakened immune system — for example, if you’re using steroids, or going through chemo — you’re at higher risk of developing cervical cancer because your immune system is weak. The same is true if you have HIV.8

4. You have same-sex partners (even just one)

HPV (and other STIs) can infect people in same-sex relationships through genital contact without sexual intercourse. So, talk to all your partners about their sexual history. Then discuss HPV testing or Pap smears with your provider.5

The bottom line: Book your yearly appointment with your provider. And then be honest when you talk to your primary care provider or ob-gyn. That way you can rest easy knowing you’ve done a good thing for your health.

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