January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. According to the American Cancer Society, death rates from cervical cancer have declined by more than 50% over the past thirty years, thanks largely to advances in screening and the widespread use of Pap tests, and more recently, tests for HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) infection.
HPV is spread by sexual contact with an infected partner; this infection is one of the most significant risk factors for developing cervical cancer. There are other factors that can increase a woman’s risk: smoking, being overweight, eating a diet low in fruits and vegetables, long-term use of birth control pills, and family history, among others.
The American Cancer Society, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have provided guidelines for screening “average-risk women” by age.
- All women should begin being screened at age 21. Women between the ages of 21 and 29 should have a Pap test every three years. For this age group, an HPV test is used only as a follow up for abnormal Pap results.
- Beginning at age 30, women should receive a combined Pap and HPV test every five years until age 65. An acceptable alternative would be to receive a Pap test every three years.
- For women aged 65 and over, testing is not recommended if there have been three consecutive negative Pap tests, or two negative HPV tests, in the last 10 years, with the most recent test taken within the past five years.
- Women who have had a total hysterectomy (including removal of cervix) for reasons other than cancer or pre-cancer do not need to be tested.
Women in higher risk categories, or with a history of pre-cancerous cells, may need to be screened more often. Talk to your primary care physician or your gynecologist about his/her recommendations.
The good news is, if caught early, cervical cancer is one of the cancers that can be treated most successfully. If you’ve been diagnosed with cervical cancer, or want to know more, contact us. We're here to help.