Over the past 40 years, there has been a significant decrease in the amount of women who have been diagnosed with or passed away from cervical cancer. This decrease is largely due in part to the regular Pap tests women are undergoing that can find precancerous cells and other cervical issues.
To learn more about screening recommendations, we spoke with Kristi Sloan, oncology nurse practitioner with The University of Kansas Health System St. Francis Campus Cancer Center.
“Women should start getting cervical cancer screenings, also known as pap tests, at age 21,” said Sloan. “Pap tests should be done every three years from the ages of 21 to 65. If you are undergoing screenings for the human papillomavirus (HPV), Pap tests only have to be done every five years once you turn 30.”
HPV, the most common sexually transmitted illness, can lead to genital warts and cancers if untreated. The HPV vaccination is recommended for both girls and boys around the ages of 11 or 12. “The HPV vaccine not only helps to prevent cervical cancer, but also vaginal cancers in women, penial cancers in men and cancers that can affect both genders such as throat, tongue and tonsils.”
If positive HPV results are shown after a screening, action is taken dependent upon Pap test results. “If the HPV screening is positive but the Pap test comes back negative, you may be required to repeat the screening the following year or you may require a colposcopy, which is a procedure that takes a sampling of the cervix for pathology testing,” said Sloan. “If two consecutive HPV screenings come back positive, a colposcopy may be done. If a Pap test is abnormal and the HPV screening is positive, more invasive procedures may need to be explored depending on your specific results.”
If cancerous cells are found, treatment options vary depending on the individual. “If that woman is not planning on having a child or having more children, hysterectomies are most commonly performed to remove the cervix,” said Sloan. “If individuals are planning on getting pregnant in the future, further treatment options can be discussed with a provider.”
Unprotected sexual intercourse is the main risk factor for HPV, which in turn puts you at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer. “Most cases of HPV are found in individuals in their early 20s, which is why the age recommendation for the vaccination is set at a younger age,” said Sloan. “The HPV vaccine has a negative reputation, but in all reality, it’s a very safe vaccine. Individuals have expressed concern with the age recommendation due to the fact that it could give teenagers the idea that they can be more promiscuous, but that is not the case. The intent is to get the vaccinations before being exposed to HPV. The later the vaccine is given, the greater the chances of exposure to HPV.”