Protecting Yourself Against Cervical Cancer
Elizabeth Howell, MD, is an obstetrician/gynecologist with McKee Center for Women’s Health.
Question: How can I protect myself against cervical cancer?
Answer: A woman can focus on prevention by avoiding the risk factors. Also, a woman should have regular Pap smears to check for abnormal changes to the cervix that could lead to cervical cancer.
Recently, providers have been using the HPV vaccine, Gardasil, which is thought to be effective in preventing cervical cancer by preventing two types of the HPV know to cause the cancer. The vaccine is available to women ages 9 through 26.
Woman often ask about Pap smears – when to have one, how often to have one, whether they really need one? The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) recommends the following:
- First Pap smear: Until recently, ACOG recommended that a woman have her first Pap smear three years after she becomes sexually active. This fall, however, they reviewed data and determined that the first screening should occur at age 21. Screenings in younger women often lead to anxiety and follow-up exams when the rate of cervical cancer among this age group of women was very low.
- Age 19-29: Have a Pap smear every three years unless your provider orders it more frequently.
- Age 30: The ACOG’s new guidelines also recommend a change in screening schedules for women who are 30 and older. The group now recommends that these women should be tested every two years instead of annually as was previously recommended.
- Women 30 and older who have had three consecutive negative tests should be screened once every three years. If a woman is at high risk for cervical cancer, has HIV or a weakened immune system or has had previous cervical abnormalities, screenings should take place annually.
- Age 65 to 70: Women who have had three normal Pap tests and no abnormal Pap tests in the past 10 years may ask their provider whether they can discontinue having the tests. Also, women who have had a hysterectomy for benign reasons do not have to be screened