“Because of Pap smears, a huge number of women are no longer dying of cervical cancer in this country,” said Carolyn Johnston, clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan Medical School. “But this is a disease that can be almost entirely prevented.”
Standing in the way of cervical-cancer prevention are a number of falsehoods that need to be set right.
False: Cervical cancer is unpreventable.
True: Because the human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer, preventing infection by HPV prevents cervical cancer. This can best happen through administration of a new vaccine. Appropriate behavior can also prevent the disease, such as limiting the number of sexual partners over a lifetime, not smoking, and undergoing regular screening with Pap smears and HPV tests.
False: Younger women need have no cervical-cancer worries.
True: While the average age of cervical cancer patients is 48, HPV infection and dysplasia are common in younger women. These can lead to cervical cancer, though not commonly, even in their 20s.
False: The HPV vaccine is unnecessary for women who avoid intercourse.
True: HPV can be passed from one partner to another orally and by touching, as well as through intercourse. So Gardasil, the HPV vaccine approved in 2006 by the Food and Drug Administration, can be decidedly helpful for women or girls who are engaging in any form of sexual contact. A government advisory committee said Gardasil should be administered regularly to girls and women age 11-26.
False: Women who have had the HPV vaccine need not use condoms during sex.
True: The vaccine protects against four types of HPV (two that cause cervical cancer and two that cause genital warts), but not against other HPV varieties and other sexually transmitted diseases.
False: Pap tests are unnecessary.
True: A woman should have regular Pap tests starting when she is 21 or three years after she becomes sexually active, whichever comes first. If a woman receives Gardasil, she should still be screened on a regular basis because of the variety of HPV strains that aren’t targeted by the vaccine.
False: Older women no longer need Pap tests.
True: Older women—even those who have gone through menopause, have had a hysterectomy, or are over 65—can take on new sexual partners, which puts them at greater risk of acquiring HPV, potentially leading to cervical cancer. Indeed, cervical cancer has been increasing in older populations.
False: My doctor gave me a pelvic exam, which is the same as a Pap test.
True: The pelvic exam and Pap test are related but not the same. A pelvic exam is just a visual examination by a doctor of a woman’s cervix and other pelvic areas. A Pap test is performed by a lab on cells collected from the cervix.