Many young women are accustomed to making the awkward trip to the OB/GYN year after year for their annual exam, often confused with just the Pap smear. The annual exam includes a manual breast screening for cancer, a pelvic exam to check for abnormalities or inflammation and it includes the Pap smear (when the speculum is used). However, new guidelines for determining when women should get Pap smears have changed. Recently, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) suggests women wait until age 21 to begin cervical cancer screenings, regardless of when a woman becomes sexually active, dispelling the idea of needing to be tested every year. The new rule suggests that women in their 20’s, who have normal Pap smear results for three consecutive years, be tested every two years. Women in their 30’s can now wait every three years. Some OB/GYNs suggest that women should wait until they are 25 before the initial screening, although Planned Parenthood is only waiting until women are 21.
There are many other reasons why the changes are beneficial, including the new recommendations being more cost-effective, with fewer exams. Testing every couple years and starting cervical cancer screenings later may reduce unnecessary anxiety in young women. While the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) affects many women yearly, studies show that 90 percent of cervical abnormalities in adolescents clear up on their own within a few years. Young women’s immune systems are strong enough to fight off HPV before it turns into cancer. Also, according to ACOG, 50 percent of those diagnosed with cervical cancer each year have never been screened before. This proves that it isn’t young women who are most at-risk for cervical cancer, but women who have never been tested.
Additionally, postponing initial screenings and screening less often also protects young women from potential future pregnancy implications. There is evidence that screening before age 25 leads to many false positives, thus resulting in unnecessary treatments. Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) is a procedure patients go through to remove pre-cancerous tissue caused by HPV. LEEP can essentially weaken the cervix. It is estimated that one in 18 women who have undergone this procedure will give birth prematurely.
Because Pap smears test strictly for cervical cancer, it is still important for women who are sexually active to continue scheduling regular visits to their gynecologist. Pap smears are only a small fraction of what is performed in an OB/GYN health center. Making annual appointments for gynecological visits will give women of all ages a chance to discuss their reproductive health and discuss contraceptive options or Hormone Replacement Therapy, test for STDs and review safe sex procedures, among other concerns. Cost-friendly health centers, such as Planned Parenthood, offer these services at an affordable rate so that women of any age can receive the health care and information they need.
For more info, contact Planned Parenthood Mar Monte at (775) 688-5555, or (775) 829-1122 or visit online at www.ppmarmonte.org.