National Cervical Cancer Screening Day is August 16: Here’s What You Need to Know
“Worldwide, it’s the second most deadly gynecological cancer,” says Dr. Dené Wrenn, OHC gynecologic oncologist. So it’s no wonder that cervical cancer has its own national day — Aug. 16 — to remind women to get screened. The day is also reserved for colorectal and breast cancers.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) describes cervical cancer as cancer that forms in the tissues of a woman’s cervix. It is slow growing and shows few signs and symptoms. Each year, there are 12,000 new cases and 4,000 deaths related to cervical cancer in the United States alone.
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Although HPV infection is common, the human body’s immune system is typically able to suppress it before it can turn into cancer. The virus causes temporary changes in cervical cells. And if an infection persists, these temporary changes can progress into more serious precancerous lesions.
Yet, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), cervical cancer is the easiest cancer to prevent with regular screening.
The Pap test (short for Papanicolaou test) and HPV test are designed to detect and diagnose cervical cancer. According to Dr. Wrenn, a Pap test is a procedure where cells are scraped from the cervix and examined under a microscope. The test for HPV can also be performed on the same sample of cells.
National guidelines recommend that women between the ages of 21-65 be screened for cervical cancer once every three years. For women ages 21-29, a Pap test is recommended. For women ages 30 and older, both the Pap test and HPV test are recommended.
Screening women from 21-65 every three years with a Pap test provides an adequate balance between risk and benefit. According to Dr. Wrenn, the frequency of testing (now at every three years) was reduced to prevent over-testing, to prevent unnecessary invasive procedures, and to reduce needless anxiety.
Says Dr. Wrenn, “Let’s just take for example a younger patient who still wants to have kids. If she has an abnormal Pap smear and we start doing biopsies and larger procedures, we may increase her risk of having pre-term deliveries. I think the biggest risk is the anxiety involved with the tests.”
When the data regarding screening was reevaluated about two years ago, it was found that very few changes to the cervix occurred in a one-year period. “If someone didn’t have screening for three years,” says Dr. Wrenn, “that’s when we started to see changes happening that might need intervention.”
Of course, women with certain risk factors may need to be screened more frequently or continue screening after age 65.
“The patient population that we are most worried about are the patients who are HPV positive. If we know a patient is HPV positive, we will not let them go three years without testing,” says Dr. Wrenn. Also among those who should be screened more often are women with compromised immune systems.
In general, who is at most risk for cervical cancer?
• Women who engage in sexual activity early in life are most at risk for cervical cancer
• Women who have multiple sexual partners, or who are in an intimate relationship with a partner who is high-risk (such as a partner with a sexually transmitted infection or who has multiple other sexual relationships).
• Women with a sexually transmitted infection are automatically considered high risk
• Women who smoke
• Women with suppressed immune systems
According to Dr. Wrenn, despite the large numbers, the life-time risk of someone getting cervical cancer is fairly low; less than 1 in 100,000 people.
“The key is finding the HPV and stopping the process before it turns into cancer,” says Dr. Wrenn. “Cervical cancer screening significantly decreases the yearly number of new cases and deaths.”