Forty years ago, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer-related death for women in the United States, but fortunately that trend has shifted. Today cervical cancer comes in at number four in the top causes of cancer-related death for women. This decline can be attributed to Pap smears that allow doctors to screen for abnormal cells of the cervix, which could be precancerous, and then to treat them before they turn into cancer.
In general, all women should start getting Pap smears at age 21. Most women can then get a Pap smear every three years or have a Pap smear with co-testing for human papilloma virus (HPV) every five years. (Note: The guidelines used to recommend annual Paps, but studies have found that less frequent intervals are as effective in decreasing cancer-related deaths while also reducing the potential harm of false positives and interventions that can result in increased risk of future preterm birth and low birth weight infants.)
The frequency of Pap smears is based on age and personal risk factors. It also depends on the results from your last test. It’s important to note that a Pap smear does not screen for uterine or ovarian cancer.
Another important advancement related to cervical health has been the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine has decreased HPV-related cancers, including cervical cancer, and genital warts by approximately 60 percent in young women. It is important to talk to your doctor to see if you are a candidate for this vaccine.
Despite only needing a Pap every few years, it is recommended that you see your gynecologist annually. There are many topics and other important women’s health screenings performed by your doctor at these visits.
If you’d like more information about HPV and cervical cancer, these websites can be a resource: