By Emily Lavin
On Wednesday, March 14, 2012, a coalition of leading health groups released new cervical cancer screening guidelines that change when and how women should be tested for the disease.
The biggest change recommended by the coalition — which includes the American Cancer Society (ACS), the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology, and the American Society for Clinical Pathology — eliminates the need for an annual Pap test to screen for cervical cancer. These new recommended screening guidelines align very closely with those issued on the same day by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), an independent expert panel that advises the government on health screening guidelines.
The new guidelines tie screening options to age in an attempt to screen more effectively and prevent women from undergoing tests they don’t need. The groups found that while screening is essential, less frequent tests prevented the same number of deaths from cervical cancer as annual ones. In addition, yearly Pap tests “can lead to harm from treatment of cell changes that would never go on to cause cancer,” said Debbie Saslow, PhD, director of breast and gynecologic cancer for the American Cancer Society, in a press release issued by the ACS on Wednesday.
As stated in the ACS’s press release, the new screening guidelines are as follows:
The new guidelines are not intended for women with a history of cervical cancer, exposure to DES in utero, or women who are immunosuppressed (e.g. HIV positive). Costs and other financial issues were not considered in creating the guidelines, according to the ACS.
Other new recommendations included in the guidelines are:
(Read the complete press release here.)
Currently, doctors use two methods to screen for cervical cancer — the Pap test, which can find cell changes in their early stages, and the HPV (human papilloma virus) test, which finds infections that can lead to cancer. The HPV test is rarely used alone because the HPV virus it detects often goes away on its own and doesn’t cause problems. Instead, the HPV test is used alongside a Pap test to increase early detection, or after a Pap test comes back abnormal.
It’s important to note that changes to cervical cancer screening guidelines don’t automatically mean less frequent trips to the doctor. An annual physical is still the best way to stay healthy and detect problems at their earliest stages.
The USPSTF’s recommendations were published online in the Annals of Internal Medicine on March 15, 2012, as well as on the Task Force’s web site.
Emily Lavin is a health writer and editor living in San Francisco.
Published March 19, 2012.