It’s important for women to see their doctor for a yearly exam to rule out a variety of health concerns, including reproductive cancers.
The Pap test is the gold standard in cervical cancer screening, but recent research shows both providers and patients could do a better job at following recommendations.
“A lot of women are over-screened, which causes more cost and potential false positives,” says Holly Thacker, MD, a women’s health expert at Cleveland Clinic. On the flipside, “A lot of women are under-screened or have an abnormal pap but don’t do the follow-up.”
A Pap test is one of the most reliable and effective cancer screenings. It can find precancerous changes on the cervix that can be treated before cancer develops or early cancer when it’s most treatable. Some women need a pap test every three years, while others over 30 who have tested negative for human papillomavirus, or HPV, and HIV can go every five years.
Two strains of human papillomavirus cause about 70 percent of cervical cancers.
Some women confuse a pelvic exam and a Pap test but it’s important to note the difference and make sure your provider is adhering to the appropriate guidelines.
A Pap test is done with a small brush that collects cells from the cervix. Officialy, a Pap is looking for cervical cancer and its precursors, but sometimes it will find other conditions, such as yeast or infection. Even if your Pap shows a “pre-cancerous” result, you should know that very few actually go on to become cancer.
When you have a Pap, make sure you get the results. If the test results are abnormal, follow-up for additional testing
A pelvic exam is where a doctor feels for abnormalities. Not every woman needs a pelvic exam every year, according to new guidelines from the American College of Physicians (ACP).
All women are at risk for gynecologic cancer, so whether you need a Pap or not, Dr. Thacker urges women to see their doctor every year.
“It’s very important to not just only focus on the pelvis and the Paps,” says Dr. Thacker. “It’s important to realize that the Pap is a screen for cervical cancer, not for ovarian or uterine cancer.”
Symptoms of gynecologic cancers vary, so it’s important to pay attention to your body and know what’s normal for you. Even if you get regular exams, be sure to call your doctor if you notice any unusual signs or symptoms.