Since the 1940s, a Pap test has been an essential part of a woman’s health routine to screen for abnormal cervical cells that may cause cancer. Recent studies have shown that tests that detect human papillomavirus (HPV) infections are better at identifying women who are at risk of developing severe cervical cell abnormalities caused by the cancer-causing HPV virus. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV causes many types of cancers, including cervical, genital and gastrointestinal cancers, and certain head and neck cancers. Thanks to the widespread use of Pap tests, cervical cancer rates have significantly dropped. Adding the HPV testing as part of an annual women’s health physical is as important as doing self-breast evaluations and getting a mammogram.
Angela Ziebarth, MD, gynecologic oncologist at Sacred Heart Cancer Center specializes in detecting and treating tumors originating in a woman’s reproductive organs. “During my residency training, a Pap test was the number one tool for detecting cellular abnormalities,” said Dr. Ziebarth. “But a Pap test isn’t foolproof; it can result in false negatives. Unlike a Pap test, the HPV test doesn’t detect precancerous or cancerous cells. Instead, it identifies high-risk HPV strains that can cause cancer.”
Dr. Ziebarth adds, “There are more than 100 different kinds of HPV strains, but only a handful of these cause cancer.” Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV; however just two types of HPV are responsible for about 70 percent of these cases.
Now women ages 30-60 have the option of choosing the Pap and HPV co-test. Ask your doctor how often you should be tested, and which test is right for you. Dr. Ziebarth says it’s important for women to discuss screening options with their gynecologist during their annual pelvic exams. Ask how often this test is recommended based on your medical history, risk factors and age. “Although it may be intimidating to space your cervical cancer screening out, we know that a persistent HPV infection is the cause of the vast majority of cervical cancers,” she added. “Therefore, in women over 30, making sure that HPV testing is a part of their care ensures that they will have superior cervical cancer screening.”
Since Pap testing does not screen for uterine or ovarian cancers, having an annual exam from your women’s health doctor is important, even if you don’t need the Pap-HPV test that year. Some women are at higher risk for cervical cancer if they are immune compromised, take steroids for a long time, or have a history of cervical pre-cancer. These women may require more frequent screening.
For referral to an gynecologist who can provide more information about women’s health screening tests like Pap and HPV testing and mammography at Sacred Heart Pensacola, call 850-416-2337.