cancer guidelines

First Mammograms, Now Pap Tests

November 25, 2009 at 2:01 pm , by

3360002123_cb852b7011_tThe week before Thanksgiving was supposed to be peaceful. Let’s not talk about the fact that both your health editors were fighting bad colds, but the moment we finished dealing with the new guidelines for mammograms, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) announced that it was recommending women delay the age they start being tested for cervical cancer.

So now the annual Pap test bites the dust, too—also based on research that “screening at less frequent intervals prevents cervical cancer just as well, has decreased costs and avoids unnecessary interventions that could be harmful,” according to Alan G. Waxman, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. What it means for you:

If you’re age 30 or more, you can now be tested every three years once you’ve had three negative results on consecutive tests. This isn’t a big change—starting in 2004 ACOG recommended testing every two to three years if you had negative results on three annual tests. Cervical cancer usually grows very slowly, so the interval is considered safe except for women with medical issues, such as abnormal results on previous tests. At 65 or 70, if you’ve had three negative tests in a row and no abnormal results in 10 years, you can stop completely.

If you’re 21 to 30—the group that used to get an annual test—you’re now supposed to be tested every two years, unless you have medical reasons to have them more often.

If you’re under 21, you shouldn’t get tested. A woman is supposed to wait until 21 for her first test, no matter how early she starts having intercourse. Previously, she was supposed to start about three years after her first intercourse or at 21, whichever came first. Why the change?

• invasive cervical cancer is very rare under 21
• most young women who get an HPV infection fight it off on their own, and
• treatments for cell abnormalities increase the risk of premature births.

Not all doctors agree. “For younger women, Pap smears save lives; 21 is way too late for most women in our culture,” says oncologist Elaine Schattner, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York.

Unlike the mammogram changes, the American Cancer Society (ACS) supports the new cervical cancer guidelines and will be releasing its own revision next year. My own reading—I’m not a doctor, remember—is that the under 21 ban is the biggest question. As always, discuss what you should do for yourself (or your daughter) with your physician.