Cervical cancer screenings, which typically involve a Pap test and in some cases, a test for the human papillomavirus, can not only help catch cancer early, but can help prevent it before it develops.
US Health Officials recommend that women receive cervical cancer screenings as a routine part of their health care.
In a Pap test, or Pap smear, a sample of cells from the cervix are gathered and then examined for the presence of cancerous and precancerous cells.
If a problem like abnormal cervical cells are detected, in many cases the situation can be treated before cervical cancer has a chance to develop. And if cervical cancer itself is detected early, there is a high likelihood of successful treatment, explained the Office on Women's Health (OWH) from the US Department of Health and Human Services.
"A Pap test can save your life," said OWH. "Getting a Pap test is the best thing you can do to prevent cervical cancer."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a cervical cancer screening may also involve a test to look for the human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that can cause the cellular changes that may lead to cervical cancer.
In an interview with dailyRx News, Jennifer Mushtaler, Ob/Gyn, of the Capital Ob/Gyn Associates of Texas in Austin, said that taking steps to prevent HPV can also help prevent cervical cancer.
"The Gardisil vaccine, approved for patients ages 11 to 26, has yielded tremendous improvements in providing protection from HPV, the virus associated with the development of cervical cancer," said Dr. Mushtaler. "Thus, we strongly recommend safe sexual practices and vaccination as a means to protect patients from cervical cancer."
Guidelines for Screenings
Both CDC and OWH recommended that women between the ages of 21 and 65 receive cervical cancer screenings as a part of their routine health care, as frequently as they are advised to do so by their doctor. This frequency can vary depending on a woman's health history.
OWH recommended, generally, that women between the ages of 21 and 29 receive a Pap test every three years, and that women between the ages of 30 and 64 receive a Pap test and an HPV test together every five years, or just a Pap test every three years.
After the Results Are In
Waiting for the results of these cervical cancer screenings can be stressful for some women. But receiving an abnormal Pap test result is not cause for panic, but rather for the patient and their doctor to move forward together.
"I believe that it is important for women to be partners in their health care. Therefore, when our patients have an abnormal Pap result, we let them know the medical classification of the Pap result as well as giving them an explanation in non-medical terms," said Dr. Mushtaler, who encourages women to empower themselves and take steps to understand their situation.
"Thankfully, long-term data has shown us that a majority of healthy women will spontaneously resolve abnormal Pap smears," explained Dr. Mushtaler. "However, because we do not know which individuals will resolve and which will ultimately need treatment, it is important that patients keep follow-up evaluations in accordance with the recommended guidelines."
According to OWH, these guidelines may include repeated Pap tests or additional tests following an abnormal result.
CDC reminded women that cervical cancer is the easiest form of gynecologic cancer to prevent, but doing so requires both regular screenings and completing any follow-ups needed.