Did you know that January is Cervical Health Awareness Month? In recognition of that, it’s important for women to be aware of changes in guidelines for some of the recommended cancer screenings they may need and how they are affecting what women can expect at their annual OB/GYN visits. For example, cervical cancer screening guidelines have changed how often women may need a Pap test and now include testing for HPV for women over 30.
Dr. Cherrell Triplett, OB/GYN at Franciscan St. Francis Medical Centers in Indianapolis and clinical assistant professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, shares some of the OB/GYN visit changes that every woman can look forward to this year. She also sheds light on why some doctors are now suggesting getting rid of the Pap test as a frontline screening tool, a move she says would put women’s lives at risk.
Brandi Walker: How much will a woman’s annual OB/GYN visit change this year?
Cherrell Triplett: One of the more recent changes women are often surprised to hear is that they no longer need a Pap test every year. In fact, cervical cancer screening guidelines now recommend pap testing every three years in women ages 21-29, and the Pap test plus an HPV test is recommended every 3-5 years for women ages 30-65. But that doesn’t mean you should skip your annual visit! Every woman is different and screening frequency can depend on other personal factors. It’s very important women have an open dialogue with their healthcare provider – during every annual visit – about the types of tests they need and when.
B.W.: Could eliminating the Pap Smear test put women’s lives at risk?
C.T.: Yes, recent research shows eliminating the Pap smear as a frontline screening test would put women’s lives at risk. The Pap test has played a large role in making cervical cancer one of the most preventable and rare cancers in the U.S. But as the battle against cancer has evolved, so have the ways we screen for it. Virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), so screening has evolved to include an HPV test in combination with a Pap test as the preferred method for women ages 30-65. Further, we now recommend women get Pap smear screening every three years, which research shows is a safe approach. Some in the medical community have suggested the potential to eliminate the Pap test as a frontline screening tool in favor of HPV only testing. However, a Quest Diagnostics study published last year found that screening with an HPV test alone could miss up to one in five women with cervical cancer.
Screening for cervical cancer is my biggest opportunity to prevent cancer in the patients I see. The facts are clear: the Pap test has been and should remain a frontline screening tool for cervical cancer.
B.W.: What are the most important health screenings and exams that every woman needs?
C.T.: This is a great question, and something women should discuss with their healthcare providers each year. Screenings you need and how frequently you need them depends on the latest research, but also on personal risk factors. For example, while most women will be screened for cervical cancer every 3-5 years, those who have had abnormal tests or other risk factors in the past may need to be screened more often.
You’re also more than a cervix! Even if your OB/GYN doesn’t do a Pap test, she/he will want to discuss your overall health (blood pressure, weight, family planning) and other health screenings you may need, such as for STDs, breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
B.W.: What is the future outlook of cervical cancer screenings?
C.T.: As we speak, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and influential professional societies, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, are evaluating the best cervical cancer screening strategies for women. Based on the historical impact and success of the Pap test in saving us from what used be the No. 1 cancer killer among women, I expect guidelines will continue to reinforce the value of Pap testing in combination with HPV testing at regular intervals. Today, using both tests together in women over 30, we can confidently identify more than 95 percent of cases of cervical cancer and pre-cancer.
B.W.: Where can women find the best information on cervical health, screenings, and prevention?
C.T.: The best resource for women is their healthcare provider. If you haven’t seen your healthcare provider in over a year, make an appointment immediately. Women can also learn more about cervical health and the importance of cervical cancer screening by visiting www.PapPlusHPV.com.