Could we soon see the day when there will be no more pap smears? New research suggests using pap smears to detect cervical cancer could become a thing of the past. While this may be good news for some women, it may not be helpful in my case.
Why do we get pap smears?
Pap smears are part of a woman’s gynecologist visit as a way to detect cervical cancer. A scraping of the cervix provides a sampling of cells that are sent to a lab to check for any abnormalities. Pap smears are recommended every three years for women 21 and over. Because of my gynecological history, I receive pap smears yearly.
What causes cervical cancer?
By far, the virus responsible for causing nearly all cases of cervical cancer is the Human Papilloma Virus or HPV. However, not all cases of HPV infection lead to cancer.
So what does this new research say?
In early March, an FDA advisory panel examined data from other countries and found that testing for HPV was far more reliable than pap smears to detect cervical cancer. The panel recommended a test made by pharmaceutical company Roche be used as the primary screener for cervical cancer. This particular test can detect two HPV strains responsible for causing nearly 70% of all cases of cervical cancer.
What happens next?
It’s up to the FDA whether or not they will heed the recommendations of this advisory panel. Even if the FDA does agree with the panel’s recommendation, it does not necessarily mean pap smears will become extinct. Each woman’s case needs to be looked at individually by her gynecologist. Currently, the pap smear is done in conjunction with an HPV test to detect cervical cancer in women over age 30. Only time will tell whether or not an individual HPV exam is more accurate than the conjunction exam.
My gynecological history
In 2003, I had a non-cancerous lesion removed from my cervix. In 2012, a pap smear-HPV conjunction screening turned up negative for cervical cancer but positive for HPV. When I was screened a year later in 2013, no HPV was detected. Even though most people do contract HPV at some point in their lives, I couldn’t help but feel nervous for a whole year. The fact that my pap smear was negative gave me some comfort. The conjunction exam works best for me and I’m fine with that. Speak with your gynecologist about what testing is appropriate for you.