Women's Health: Make Pap Screening a Priority in 2009
Make Pap Screening a Priority in 2009
Cervical cancer is a disease that affects too many women each year. In 2008, an estimated 11,000 new cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed, and the disease caused nearly 4,000 deaths in the US.
Fortunately, women have a highly effective tool in detecting cervical cancer at its earliest and most treatable stages-the Pap test. The beginning of the year is a great time to schedule an appointment to have this important screening.
The cervix is the lower, narrow end of the uterus. It is covered by a thin layer of cells that are continually growing and being replaced. Certain factors, such as an infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), may cause cervical cells to begin to grow abnormally. These abnormal cells often go away without treatment, but in some women they will continue to grow and eventually turn into cancer. Regular Pap screenings can help your ob-gyn monitor changes in cervical cells that may need treatment.
Pap screening is generally quick and painless. Your ob-gyn will collect a sample of cervical cells that will be sent to a lab for examination. ACOG recommends that women have their first Pap test within three years of sexual activity or by the age of 21, then annually until age 30. Women older than 30 who have had three normal tests in a row can get a Pap test every two to three years but should still see their doctor annually for other routine screenings and preventive care.
In addition to Pap testing, women 30 and older can also have an HPV test, which screens for the presence of cancer-causing HPV strains. When taken together, these tests increase the odds of finding abnormal cell changes. HPV testing is not advised for women under 30 because it may lead to unnecessary treatment of abnormal cells that would likely resolve if left alone.
If your test comes back with abnormal results, your doctor may suggest a follow-up HPV test or a repeat Pap test to be sure the cells don't change. Some women may need a procedure called a colposcopy, which uses a magnifying tool to view and take a small sample of abnormal cells for examination.
Precancerous cells that are found can be removed through minor surgical techniques, such as electrosurgical excision (LEEP), or freezing. These treatments may be performed in your doctor's office or in an outpatient surgical clinic. You also may be given medication to ease discomfort. After treatment, your doctor will suggest frequent check-ups and Pap tests. Continue to see your doctor regularly and be sure to ask questions if you have any concerns.
For more information, the ACOG Patient Education Pamphlet "The Pap Test" is available in English and Spanish at www.acog.org/publications/