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Cervical Cancer Screening for Most Women Can Be Less Frequent, Health Task Force Says

Womens-Health-Care-Cervical-Cancer-Screening-202x300Several medical organizations have issued revised guidelines regarding the optimal frequency for cervical cancer screening for women.

Previously, a Pap test was recommended for most women every three years. New research has shown that it’s generally safe to extend the interval between cervical cancer screenings to five years for women who have both a Pap test and a test for the human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV was shown to be linked to cervical cancer almost 40 years ago. Although most HPV infections quickly go away on their own, especially among younger women, it has been demonstrated that persistent infection with certain types of HPV is a cause of nearly all cases of cervical cancer.

Women aged 30 to 65 with negative Pap smears and HPV tests can safely wait five years until their next cervical cancer screening, according to new guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The USPSTF revised its own 2003 guidelines based on the latest research on the efficacy of HPV testing. Similar revised recommendations were also released recently by The American Cancer Society, the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology, and the American Society for Clinical Pathology.

The groups concluded that more frequent cervical cancer screenings can do more harm than good.  Abnormal test results can lead to further, more invasive testing, when in fact precancerous changes to the cervical tissue develop slowly and often resolve themselves without treatment of any kind.

Another change to the USPSTF guidelines is the age at which it recommends that cervical cancer screening should begin. The USPSTF now says screening should begin at age 21. Previous USPSTF guidelines recommended that women first be screened within three years of becoming sexually active and no later than 21. The task force says it found little evidence that sexual history should determine the age at which women begin to get screened, and no evidence that screening women younger than 21 reduces the number of deaths from cervical cancer.

Under the new guidelines, screening can end at age 65 for women who’ve had at least three consecutive negative Pap tests or at least two negative HPV tests within the last 10 years. Also, women of any age who’ve had a hysterectomy with removal of the cervix and no history of cervical cancer or advanced precancerous abnormalities do not need to be screened.

Women who have been diagnosed with advanced precancer should continue to be screened for at least 20 years after the diagnosis. Also, any woman may need more intensive screening than the general guidelines call for if her medical history includes:

  • a past diagnosis of cervical cancer
  • prenatal exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a drug sometimes prescribed for pregnant women between 1940 and 1970  in the mistaken belief it would reduce the risk of pregnancy complications and miscarriages
  • an immune system compromised by HIV or other causes

Death rates from cervical cancer, at least in developed countries, have plummeted thanks to routine screening. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 12,000 women will be diagnosed with the cervical cancer this year and that more than 4,200 will die. A majority of the cases occur in women who haven’t undergone screening in more than five years.

The USPSTF cautions that its guidelines for cervical cancer screening are not meant to suggest that women should refrain from seeing their doctors regularly. Annual physical examinations are still needed since women’s health can be improved by early detection of conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Naturopathic physician Paul Stallone, N.M.D., provides women’s health care at the Arizona Integrative Medical Center, a premier alternative medicine clinic in Scottsdale. Dr. Stallone and the staff at AIM also provide complementary medicine for women, men and children undergoing treatment for cancer of any kind.  Call AIM today at (480) 214-3922 to schedule your appointment.

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