Pap Smears Aren’t as Urgent as You Thought?

November 12, 2012

Pap Smears Aren’t as Urgent as You Thought?

The American Cancer Society, together with two other American medical associations, have recently issued a new set of guidelines for cervical cancer screening, or as it is more commonly known, a pap smear.

What were the old guidelines?

In the past pap smears were recommended to start when a woman reached the age of 21 or three years after she began sexual activity and every year from then on as it was assumed that should cervical cancer occur, then by catching it quickly and beginning the appropriate treatments sooner rather than later would increase survival rates.

What has changed?

Despite the fact that more than 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year and more than 4,000 of those women die from the disease, studies have shown that there is hardly any difference in the results of pap tests taken every year or every three years. Cervical cancer does not affect many young women and in older women it is a slow growing disease, so waiting longer for the test will not make any difference.

So what are the new guidelines?

Debbie Saslow of the American Cancer Society says that for the first time:

  • Annual screening is not recommended.

  • A test will also be carried out on women who have turned 30 for the Human Papillomavirus, which is a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cancer of the cervix. If both tests are negative, then a woman need not be tested again for another 5 years.

  • Women need not be screened after the age of 65 if they have always had negative pap tests.

What is the reasoning behind the new guidelines?

Sometimes a test is positive, but when a procedure is undergone to confirm the cancer, it is found to be a false positive and the procedure, which has been needless, has caused a great deal of distress and worry for a lot of women. Plus the repetition of follow-up procedures can damage the cervix and it may cause serious problems for women in pregnancy and birth. Experts believe a damaged cervix can cause premature or low birth babies.

Also adding a HPV test to a pap smear is much more accurate and negates the need for more frequent testing.

Does everyone agree?

In some quarters the guidelines have caused some consternation, claiming that this is merely a money saving exercise and has little to do with the health issue, especially as there have been previous recommendations to cut back screening from areas such as prostate and breast cancer, but the American Cancer Society refute these allegations.

Will women remember?

Another worry about pap smear testing not being carried out annually, is the problem of women remembering to book an appointment and what year they had their last pap smear. It could be that reminders will have to be sent out, this can easily be done by text message or e-mail and by that way women will know when their pap smear is due.

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