Not to get too personal, but when was the last time you had a Pap smear? Be honest.
As many as eight million adult women in the U.S. haven’t been screened for cervical cancer in five years, according to a report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Avoiding the gyno truly means putting their health on the line: More than 50 percent of new cervical cancer cases are in women who haven’t had a Pap smears in five years.
While the guidelines about how often to get Pap smears changed in 2012 (the new recommendation is less frequent screenings — such as every three years — for most women ages 21 to 65), that doesn’t mean women can skip them all together.
A Pap smear is an important health test used to check cervical cells for abnormalities, which can signal cancerous growth (addtionally, an HPV test screens for the human papillomavirus that causes these cell changes). Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infections, and a mere two types of HPV, 16 and 18, are responsible for about 70 percent of all cervical cancer cases, according to the National Cancer Institute. (Fortunately, a new HPV vaccine protects against more strains.)
In most cases, infected cells are spotted by the immune system and eliminated. But if they’re not, they continue to grow and can ultimately form a tumor. Pap smears detect these abnormal changes early on when the condition is more treatable. In fact, up to 93 percent of cervical cancers could be prevented by screening and the HPV vaccine, according to the CDC.
The CDC also found that seven out of 10 women who haven’t been screened for cervical cancer in the past five years have a regular doctor and health insurance coverage — i.e., they do have access to medical coverage — so it’s unclear why they haven’t gone in for testing. What’s more, the 2010 Affordable Care Act requires that health insurance providers offer all cancer screenings for free so there’s no charge to the patient. Ultimately, it’s up to women — and their physicians — to remind themselves to get checked as needed and not let this important test fall by the wayside.