The annual Pap smear, once a woman’s health ritual, may become a thing of the past. In 2009, the American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians adopted new guidelines stating that most healthy women, ages twenty-one to sixty-five, could limit the simple test that screens for cervical cancer to once every three years. The test is considered the best way to screen for the disease, which is often caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, or HPV, and is highly treatable when caught early but possibly fatal if undetected for a long time.
More recently, a number of major medical organizations have concluded that annually testing in women with a history of normal Pap smears is tantamount to clinical overkill. Citing too many “false positive” results and other data, they began recommending abandoning the annual habit.
Yet some Fairfield County gynecologists say many women—and some of their doctors—continue to request Pap smears once a year. One concern of reducing testing frequency is that it may lead women to be more lax about seeing their doctors regularly, a practice beneficial for overall well-being. “It’s the thinking [that] if my dentist tells me, ‘I want to see you every five years,’ I’ll see him in ten,” notes Dr. Thomas Rutherford, a gynecological oncologist and network physician director of cancer services for the Western Connecticut Health Network.
Dr. Shieva Ghofrany, an OB/GYN affiliated with Stamford Hospital, tells her patients she wants to see them annually no matter what. “You still need a breast exam, you still need a well-woman exam; so if you hear, ‘I only need to see you [for a Pap] every three years,’ it can get confusing.” Since many insurers still pay for the annual screening, Dr. Ghofrany says some women and doctors say yes to the test anyway.
Dr. Rutherford favors individualized testing recommendations based on a woman’s lifestyle—smoking, for example, elevates cervical cancer risk—or whether there is history of abnormal Pap smears. “If you’ve never had an abnormal Pap smear, there comes a time when every three years is probably fine,” says Dr. Rutherford. “The key here is to be honest and talk to your physician so they can determine the best schedule for you.”
CERVICAL CANCER FACTS
- Contracting HPV
- Multiple Sexual Partners
- A Compromised Immune System can diminish immunity to HPV.
- Smoking “Cervical cancers show up in smokers a lot sooner than lung, bladder or pancreatic cancers,” says Dr. Rutherford
- Abstinence “is the most foolproof way to prevent the spread of HPV,” says Dr. Ghofrany.
- Practice Safe Sex “Condoms help, but know they’re not foolproof,” says Dr. Ghofrany, who points out that cancer of the throat and neck are on the rise because HPV also spreads through oral sex.
- Good Health Habits Avoid smoking, drug and alcohol abuse. Eat your fruits and veggies.
- Stay Vigilant “Even women older than sixty-five should be screened if they change partners,” says Dr. Rutherford. Although it tends to be a disease of younger women, more than 15 percent of cervical cancer is found in women older than sixty-five.
- Get an HPV Vaccine But understand that vaccines –while beneficial—don’t protect against every strain of HPV.