The New Pap Rules
Whether you’re 25 or 40-plus, cervical-cancer screening can save your life. What to know before you step into the stirrups.
Being getting annual PAP tests 3 years after you start having intercourse or at age 21. A cell sample is taken from your cervix during a Pap to detect changes that could signal cancer. Also, approximately 70 percent of cervical-cancer cases are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). If you’re under 26, ask your doctor about the new HPV vaccine. Researchers recently made an exciting discovery: The vaccine may guard against additional cancer-causing strains – not just two of them, as previously thought. Whether you get the vaccine or not, you need an annual Pap. For best results, do not douche or use tampons for at least 48 hours before.
Some doctors think it’s best to keep getting annual Pap tests. The guidelines change once you turn 30, however, so annual tests may not be necessary. If you’ve had normal Pap results 3 years in a row, you can have the test every 2 to 3 years. Also, consider getting screened for HPV. It’s easy: Your doctor can use the same sample of cells that he or she collected for your Pap. In fact, the HPV test may be even more crucial than the Pap. One study found that for women age 30 to 69 it was nearly 40 percent more effective than the Pap at detecting precancerous cells. It’s crucial to be vigilant now, because most cases of cervical cancer are detected after age 35.
Turning 40 doesn’t mean you should stop getting Paps. You should continue the tests at least until you are 70 – because 20 percent of cervical-cancer cases are diagnosed after age 65. Here’s another reason not to skip the stirrups: Women in this age group may have been exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES, a hormone widely used from 1938 to 1971 to prevent miscarriage). Ask your mom – if she took DES when she was pregnant, you could be at increased risk for cervical cancer.
I’m 44 and have had three normal Paps. Do I really need a yearly ob-gyn visit?
Definitely. You still need an annual pelvic exam, which is not the same as a Pap test. During a pelvic exam, your doctor examines your reproductive organs to look for problems, including signs of ovarian and endometrial cancer.