Credit Pap tests and vaccinations against the human papillomavirus (HPV) for the 50% decrease in cervical cancer deaths in the United States over the last four decades. These prevention tools can avert almost 93% of cervical cancers.
Still, nearly 12,000 women in our country are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year, causing 4,000 deaths.
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, so Mark Rosenberg, DO, and the team at Macomb Medical Clinic in Sterling Heights, Michigan, are taking this opportunity to educate women about this highly preventable, yet sometimes deadly, disease.
The significance of regular Pap tests
A Pap test, or a Pap smear, is a screening procedure to identify abnormal changes in cervical cells before they become cancerous. Women who schedule regular Pap tests are less likely to get cervical cancer since these tests detect abnormalities at the earliest stage.
What to expect during your Pap smear
Typically performed alongside pelvic exams and HPV screenings during routine well-woman visits, a Pap smear involves lying on an examination table with your lower body uncovered.
Dr. Rosenberg uses a tool called a speculum to gain visibility into the vagina. He then collects a few cells from the cervix's surface using a soft brush. The collected cells are sent to a lab and analyzed under a microscope for abnormalities.
The procedure takes only minutes and is usually painless, though you may experience pressure or discomfort.
Interpreting abnormal Pap smear results or positive HPV tests
Each year, over 3 million women receive abnormal Pap smear results, yet fewer than 1% are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Abnormal Pap smear results don’t warrant immediate panic.
Factors that might contribute to abnormal results include engaging in sexual activity or using tampons before the test, an inflamed or infected cervix, benign cervical growths, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), cervical dysplasia, or the presence of HPV.
In the event of abnormal results, Dr. Rosenberg discusses next steps, often involving additional tests. For eligible patients who haven't gotten the HPV vaccine, he may recommend doing so.
The human papillomavirus is the most prevalent STD. Of the 150 types of HPV, at least 12 are considered high-risk strains and just two cause cancers involving the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, or anus.
About 80% of women encounter at least one HPV type in their lifetimes. The virus typically spreads through vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Many carriers are unaware of their HPV status because the virus is often asymptomatic.
The good news is that an HPV vaccine targets the HPV types most prone to causing cervical cancer and other associated cancers. The vaccine also guards against variants causing most genital warts.
The HPV vaccine is most effective before sexual activity begins; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Rosenberg recommend it for girls and boys ages 11 or 12.
Since its introduction in 2006, HPV vaccination has substantially reduced infections leading to most HPV-related cancers and genital warts.
Condoms can help prevent some sexually transmitted diseases, including HPV transmission, but they don’t provide absolute protection.
How often should you get a Pap test?
Women ages 21-65 should undergo routine Pap tests. The frequency depends on personal history and previous screening results, but general guidelines are:
- 21-29 years: Every three years
- 30-65 years: Every 3-5 years
- 66 and older: Only required if a history of abnormal results
Women may need more frequent Pap smears with specific risk factors, such as a history of cervical cancer, a weakened immune system, early sexual activity, or multiple sexual partners.
To book your Pap test and for all of your primary care needs, call Macomb Medical Clinic at 586-315-2393 today to make an appointment.