A Pap smear is an important screening measure that can detect abnormal cells in the cervical area before they turn into cancer. Doctors recommend women between the ages of 21 and 65 make Pap testing a regular part of their health care routine.
Health care plans typically cover this service at no cost to the insured. The question isn’t whether you should have a Pap test, it’s how often this test is recommended for you.
What Is a Pap Smear?
A Pap test takes place during a pelvic exam. The doctor uses a speculum to open your vagina to get a better view of your cervix. They will use a cotton swab to collect cells from the cervix and send them to a pathologist for further evaluation. The cell sample will then be analyzed for any abnormalities.
Why Is it Important?
The Pap smear is the primary way to proactively diagnose and treat abnormal cells before they turn into cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, 12,820 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2017, and 4,210 women will die from the disease. Survival rates vary greatly based on when the cancer is diagnosed.
When cervical cancer is treated in its earliest stage, the five-year survival rate is 92 percent. If the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, the five-year survival rate is 17 percent. Pap tests allow for early diagnosis and prompt treatment — two key factors in successfully treating pre-cancerous and cancerous tissue of the cervix.
Age, Health and Past Tests Dictate Frequency
While the official recommendations on Pap test frequency may differ among organizations and individual doctors, the most common belief is that once a woman turns 21 and has a negative Pap smear, she should have a Pap test every three years, regardless of whether she is sexually active or has had the HPV vaccine.
If all results come back normal throughout her 20s, she can begin having Pap tests once every five years after she turns 30. From ages 30 to 65, women should also be tested for HPV, a disease that can lead to cervical cancer if it isn’t treated.
After age 65, she can talk with her doctor about stopping Pap tests if she has consistently had normal results over the past 10 years.
At every stage, the doctor may alter the recommendations for patients based on several factors, but mainly their overall health and their family history of cervical cancer. Women at high risk, such as those who have had abnormal results on previous Pap tests or have been infected with HPV or HIV, should be tested more often.
Talk to Your Doctor
A Pap test could save your life. If you can’t remember the last time you’ve been tested, take charge of your health and make an appointment with Rocky Mountain Women’s Health Center to get the preventive care you need to stay safe and healthy.