What Should Women Know About Cervical Cancer Screening?
- A man who lost his wife to cervical cancer is speaking up about how important screening is — and encouraging other women to not put these tests off.
- Most women, depending on age and risk factors, should be screened for cervical cancer every few years.
- Women can get either Pap tests or HPV tests to look for abnormal cells that might be considered precursors to cancer.
- In recent years, doctors have found HPV tests to be more accurate, and they are required less frequently.
Cervical cancer screening is a crucial part of taking care of overall health, and all adult women should be aware of screening guidelines. These tests, which should be performed every few years between the ages of 21 and 65 — with frequency depending on risk level, look for changes in the cells of the cervix that could lead to cancer. Screening can include cervical cytology (also known as a Pap smear), a human papillomavirus (HPV) test, or both. In recent years, doctors have moved towards focusing more on the HPV tests. Most women should be getting screened every few years.Read More
- Women between ages 21 and 29 should have a Pap test alone every three years; an HPV test can be considered for women in the 25 to 29 range as well
- Women between the ages of 30 and 65 have the option of a Pap test and an HPV test (co-testing) every five years, a Pap test alone every three years, or an HPV test alone every five years
HPV Test vs. The Pap Test
Both an HPV test and a Pap test are performed the same way in a doctor’s office. Your doctor will collect a sample of cells from the cervix using a scraper or a brush. And while both are effective at finding cancer precursors, in recent years studies have shown that the HPV tests are more accurate and reliable — and they can also be performed less frequently.
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that can lead to cervical cancer, as well as a host of other cancers, in some people.
“The vast majority of humans in the U.S., both men and women, will eventually get infected with human papillomavirus,” Dr. Allen Ho, a head and neck surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous conversation.
Dr. Allen Ho, of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, explains how HPV turns into cancer.
“The important thing to know about HPV is that there are many different strains, and only a couple of them tend to be more cancer-inducing. Probably less than one percent of the population who get infected happen to have the cancer-causing virus that, somehow, their immune system fails to clear.”
Fortunately, there is a way to prevent these few strains of HPV from causing cancer, the HPV vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV causes an estimated 36,500 cases of cancer in American adults every year — and the vaccine can prevent around 33,700 of those cases. The vaccine should be given to children to be most effective — and can be administered as early as age 9.
Screening Can Prevent Tragedies
In Peter Johnson’s case, his wife putting off screening tragically ended up costing her her life. His wife, Elke, was first diagnosed in September 2017, after months of suffering from symptoms like back pain and bleeding, at age 43. He told the Manchester Evening News that while the family was initially given a positive prognosis, they soon learned that Elke’s cancer had moved to her lymph nodes and the disease was considered stage four.
She began chemotherapy and went through several other treatments, only to tragically learn in March 2018 that no further treatment could be offered because of the way her cancer had spread. She sadly died in 2019, leaving behind Peter and two young children.
“After she passed away, about 12 months later, I eventually got her documents and everything and was sorting things out and I found five smear test referrals from her doctors … there were being sent from around 2013,” he explained.
“I remember seeing one of these at the time around 2013 or 2014 and asking her about it. The answer she gave me was probably the same as what many women would say, that it was a woman’s problem.”
Peter says that the loss of his wife has inspired him to encourage others to speak out about subjects that may seem taboo, like making regular visits to the gynecologist.
“The message is to go out there and get tested,” he said. “The grief never stops.”