In 2011, over 12,000 women in the U.S. were diagnosed with cervical cancer. That same year, roughly 4,000 women died from the disease.
The first line of defense against cervical cancer is testing. It’s common knowledge that women should protect themselves by getting a Pap smear once every three years. A Pap smear is a test for cervical cancer that scrapes cells from the cervix to be examined under a microscope.
As good as the Pap smear has been for women’s health, it’s not perfect.
According to the health services of the University of Michigan, “For women, a Pap smear can also be used to screen for non-visible (subclinical) human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. The Pap smear is not a specific test for HPV, although sometimes the results suggest that HPV might be present.”
Around 70 percent of cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), types 16 and 18. Last April, the FDA approved an HPV test. As of Thursday, a panel of experts on cervical cancer screening began recommending that the HPV test replace Pap smears for women at the age of 25.
Dr. Warner Huh, lead author of the interim guidance report and director of the University of Alabama’s Division of Gynecologic Oncology, said, “Our review of the data indicates that primary HPV testing misses less pre-cancer and cancer than cytology [a Pap smear] alone. The guidance panel felt that primary HPV screening can be considered as an option for women being screened for cervical cancer.”
The panel also recommended that any women with negative results on their HPV tests should not be tested again for three years. However, not everyone believes that the HPV test should completely take over for Pap smears.
The American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists (ACOG), the largest ob-gyn group in the U.S., has made it clear that they believe most women should still be screened using either the Pap smear alone or both the Pap smear and the HPV test.
The good news, regardless of what side of the argument people fall on, is that there are now more tools to help women detect cervical cancer early on.
Dr. Herschel Lawson, chief medical officer at the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology, spoke about the tests in a news release.
“We are lucky that we have so many tools available now to improve cervical cancer prevention efforts and afford patients options depending on their individual situations. We’ll continue to work to find the best way to combine screening tools with other prevention efforts like HPV vaccines, for the early detection and treatment of cervical cancer. The most important message for providers and the community is that women should be screened for cervical cancer. Screening saves lives.”
[Image courtesy of Fox]