Thanks to Pap tests and vaccinations against the human papillomavirus (HPV), cervical cancer deaths in the United States have dropped substantially — over 50% in the past 40 years.
These two tools can prevent almost 93% of cervical cancers. However, nearly 12,000 women in the country still face a cervical cancer diagnosis annually, and 4,000 lose their lives to the disease.
In recognition of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, the team at Bethel Family Medicine in Brockton, Massachusetts, takes this opportunity to explain what every woman should know about preventing this deadly disease.
The importance of routine Pap smears
A Pap smear, or Pap test, is a screening to identify abnormal changes in cervical cells before they progress to cancer. Regular Pap tests make it highly unlikely for women to be diagnosed with cervical cancer, as they catch abnormalities at the earliest stage.
Typically performed during well-woman visits, Pap smears involve lying on an examination table with your lower body uncovered. Your provider gently uses a speculum to gain visibility into the vagina, collecting a few cells from the cervix's surface with a soft brush.
The procedure is generally painless, though you may feel slight pressure or discomfort. It takes just a few minutes. The collected cells are sent to a lab and examined under a microscope for abnormalities.
Understanding abnormal Pap smear results or positive HPV tests
Each year, over 3 million women receive abnormal Pap smear results, but less than 1% are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Abnormal Pap smear results shouldn’t be cause for panic.
Various factors, like engaging in sexual activity or using tampons before the test, an inflamed or infected cervix, benign cervical growths, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), cervical dysplasia, or the presence of HPV, can contribute to abnormal results.
Your Bethel Family Medicine provider discusses next steps in case of abnormal results, often involving additional tests. If you’ve yet to receive the HPV vaccine, they may recommend that.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, with many strains, some leading to health issues like genital warts and cancers.
Approximately 80% of women get at least one type of HPV in their lifetime, with the virus typically spreading through vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Many carriers are unaware of their HPV status because the virus often resolves on its own without symptoms.
Fortunately, the HPV vaccine targets the types most likely to cause cervical cancer and other associated cancers. The vaccine also protects against variants causing most genital warts.
The HPV vaccine is most effective when administered before a person becomes sexually active. It’s recommended for girls and boys ages 11 or 12, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Bethel health care team.
Since its introduction in 2006, HPV vaccination has significantly reduced infections that lead to most HPV-related cancers and genital warts. While condoms can help prevent some sexually transmitted diseases, including HPV transmission, they don't offer absolute protection.
How often should you get a Pap test?
The frequency depends on personal history and previous screening results, but general guidelines are:
- 21-29 years: Pap smear every three years
- 30-65 years: Pap smear every 3-5 years
- 66 years and older: Pap smear only required with a history of abnormal results
Women with specific risk factors, such as a history of cervical cancer, a weakened immune system, early sexual activity, or multiple sexual partners, may need more frequent Pap smears.
To book your Pap test and for all of your and your family’s primary health care needs, book an appointment with the professionals at Bethel Family Medicine.