Cervical cancer and screening

November 12, 2012

Cervical cancer and screening

Recent changes in the recommendations concerning the frequency of screening procedures for cervical cancer mean that women may longer be required to undergo an annual Pap smear test.

Pap smear tests are intended to screen women, who show no symptoms, for the early signs of cervical cancer. Despite the reduction in deaths from cancer of the cervix in recent years, attributed directly to screening, the American Cancer Society feels that an annual Pap smear test is not appropriate.

Research into the causes of cancer of the cervix and the best methods for screening is ongoing in the hope that a procedure will be found that will identify the disease as early as possible in order to facilitate treatment, or, better yet, prevent it developing at all.

Current screening

Current screening methods include the Pap smear test which detects and treats early changes to cells which may be pre-cancerous. Finding cervical cancer in its early stages means that treatment is likely to be more successful.

The second screening method for cancer of the cervix looks for the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and any other infections likely to cause changes in cells which may lead to cancer. Whilst HPV infections are extremely common sexually transmitted diseases most cases resolve themselves with no long lasting damage. However, HPV is also recognized as a risk factor for cervical cancer, a woman who produces an abnormal Pap smear test may also be tested for HPV.

New recommendations

The new recommendations for cervical cancer screening, as outlined by the American Cancer Society, are as follows -

  • Screening for cancer of the cervix should begin at age 21 for all women

  • Until the age of 29 a Pap smear test should be carried out every three years on all women.

  • No test for HPV without an abnormal Pap test result

  • Between the ages of 30 and 65 women should have a Pap test and an HPV test every five years.

  • Once women who have had regular screening reach the age of 65 with no abnormal results they will no longer require any screening for the disease.

  • Women over the age of 65 who have had an abnormal Pap smear result should continue to be screened.

  • Women with no history of either cervical cancer or pre-cancerous cells and who have also undergone a total hysterectomy no longer need to go through the screening process.

  • Women who have been vaccinated against HPV should still receive age appropriate screening.

  • Women identified as being at higher risk of developing cancer of the cervix may need more frequent screening, this includes women who have undergone an organ transplant, have been exposed to the drug DES or have an HIV infection.

The reasons for the changes in the screening recommendations, as cited by the American Cancer Society are, because cancer of the cervix can take as long as twenty years to develop frequent screening may mean that unnecessary procedures are being carried out.

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