In previous generations of women, cervical cancer was one of the most common causes of cancer death, but advancements in cervical cancer screening have dramatically changed this statistic. Over the last 40 years, the cervical cancer death rate has decreased by more than 50 percent (source: American Cancer Society). The primary reason for the change? The increased use of the Pap test which can find cervical cancer in its most curable stages and even identify changes in the cervix prior to cancer developing.
Understanding Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines
While cervical cancer screening was once routine as part of an annual well-woman exam, guidelines have changed through the years. Your age and health status now determine how often you need screening and which tests are recommended. Current guidelines are:
- Age 21-29: Women have a Pap smear every three years
- Age 30-65: Women have a Pap smear and HPV test (co-testing) every five years
For women with certain risk factors or symptoms, more frequent screening for cervical cancer may be suggested. It’s important to talk to your primary care doctor about the optimal cancer screening schedule for you, based on your health and family history.
“Healthcare is a partnership,” says Dr. Andrew Menzin, Chief, Division of Gynecologic Oncology, Central Region Department of OB/GYN, Northwell Health. “In today’s healthcare setting, women need to be proactive about their health through dialog with their doctor and maintaining important records, such as Pap test results.”
It’s also essential to contact your doctor right away if you are experiencing any unusual symptoms, such as:
- Pelvic pain
Gynecologist or General Practitioner?
Many young women rely on their gynecologist as their facilitator of primary care. Those who do should mention this during their well-woman exams to ensure they receive other necessary screenings, such as for blood pressure, bone density, weight, cholesterol and emotional health.
As women get older, their gynecological needs evolve. Cervical cancer screening may be discontinued in some women at 65 years, and the gynecologist can help navigate the medical issues that occur as part of the transition into the menopausal years. Regular visits remain an important part of women’s health maintenance.
Strides in Cervical Cancer Prevention
It is a unique moment in medical history when a vaccine can help prevent the development of cancer. This is currently the case with the available vaccines to prevent infection by certain types of the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV causes most cases of cervical cancer, as well as many vaginal, vulvar, anal, penile and oropharyngeal cancers (cancers of the throat and mouth).
The American Cancer Society recommends routine HPV vaccination for girls and boys, starting at age 11 or 12. HPV vaccination is also recommended for females 13 to 26 and males 13 to 21 who have not already started the vaccines. Talk to your doctor for specific HPV vaccination recommendations for yourself or your child.
Find out more about cervical cancer prevention and treatment. At Katz Institute for Women’s Health, we’re here to answer your questions. Call the Katz Institute for Women’s Health Resource Center at 855-850-5494 to speak to a women’s health specialist.