January is National Cervical Health Awareness Month. The staff of D-M’s 355th Medical Group Women’s Health Clinic would like to highlight some of the new changes in the guidelines for cervical cancer screening. Pap smears now begin at age 21. Many women will be glad to know that they no longer need a pap smear every year. Recent research has determined that almost all cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus. We are now routinely using a DNA test to detect the high-risk strains of HPV in women 30 and older. If your pap smear is normal, you will not need another one for three years. If you are 30 or older and both pap smear and HPV tests are negative, you will only require screening every five years. Cervical cancer develops very slowly over time and in the absence of HPV, women are not at risk. A vaccine for HPV is now available at our immunizations clinic (series of three shots over six months), for ages 9-26.
A few populations of women can discontinue getting pap smears: those who have had a total hysterectomy (uterus and cervix removed) for non-cancerous reasons and women over 65 (with past history of normal pap smears). Despite the fact that many women may not need pap smears as frequently, we will not turn women away who have other gynecological-related questions/concerns. In fact, all beneficiaries are encouraged to see a WHC provider or their PCM for an annual “Well Woman” visit. Also, birth control prescriptions are good for one year only and patients must be seen on an annual basis to ensure they are still eligible to continue the method.
The WHC manages women who have abnormal pap smears (pre-cancerous cellular changes or “dysplasia” of the cervix) in our Abnormal Pap Program. We monitor these patients very closely and perform routine surveillance at frequent intervals. In the majority of cases, the abnormalities will resolve on their own; however some women are referred to a civilian gynecologist for consultation and/or definitive treatment of moderate-severe dysplasia and then subsequently return for their follow-up pap smears in the WHC.
The WHC staff is available to answer any questions you may have about the new cervical cancer screening guidelines. Call the central appointment line at 228-2778 to schedule your appointment.