How long should I continue to be tested for cervical cancer?

A doctor shows a patient information on a tablet.

Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer-related death for women in the U.S.—but that’s no longer the case, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The main reason, the CDC says, is Pap tests, which can detect unusual cells in the cervix before they become cancerous.1

Most cancer authorities have recommended that women past 65 stop having Pap tests (also known as Pap smears).2

Recent studies, however, have some researchers asking whether the screening guidelines need to be reevaluated. Research presented to the Society of Gynecologic Oncology in March 2018 indicated that women older than 65 actually had higher cervical cancer rates than younger women in certain instances.

The researchers analyzed data from 2 vast cancer databases: the National Cancer Database, and the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results database. The findings suggested that screening guidelines need to be reconsidered with an aging U.S. population, according to study co-author Sarah Dilley, MD, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.3

Another study in 2014 by scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis produced similar results concerning age-based differences in cervical cancer rates.4

Talk to your doctor

What does this mean for you? You should talk to your doctor and follow his or her recommendations. Make sure your doctor knows about your history of Pap tests, because a long history of Pap tests with normal results might mean you don’t need to continue testing. Tell your doctor, too, if you are sexually active. The most common cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can be spread through sexual contact.5

Sources

  1. Cervical Cancer Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last accessed Dec. 2, 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/statistics/index.htm, opens new window.
  2. “What Should I know about Screening?” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last accessed Dec. 5, 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/basic_info/screening.htm, opens new window.
  3. “Nearly One in Five Women with Cervical Cancer Are Diagnosed After Age 65,” Cancer Network, last accessed Dec. 5, 2019; https://www.cancernetwork.com/sgo/nearly-one-five-women-cervical-cancer-are-diagnosed-after-age-65, opens new window.
  4. A. F. Rositch, R. G. Nowak,and P. E. Gravitt, “Increased age and race-specific incidence of cervical cancer after correction for hysterectomy prevalence in the United States from 2000 to 2009.” Cancer (May 12, 2004): 120: 2032-2038, last accessed Dec. 17, 2019; https://doi.org/10.1002/cncr.28548, opens new window.
  5. HPV and Cancer, National Cancer Institute, last accessed Dec. 9, 2019, https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/infectious-agents/hpv-and-cancer, opens new window.