Pap test needed only every two, three years

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com November 19 2002 1:00 AM ET

Most women over age 30 can skip the annual Pap test for cervical cancer and instead safely have the check only every two to three years, the American Cancer Society said Thursday. Cervical cancer grows so slowly that women have plenty of time to be tested and have any preventive treatment, the organization advised. "The new guidelines will have a major impact on the number of women who are overscreened and overtreated," said Mary Simmonds, national volunteer president of the American Cancer Society. "Because most cervical precancers grow slowly, having a test every two to three years will find almost all cervical precancers and cancers while they can be removed or treated successfully."

Cervical cancer is usually caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus. Precancerous changes can be detected with the Pap smear test, and suspect areas removed before cancer develops. The new guidelines say testing every two to three years is usually sufficient for women older than 30 who have had several "clear" tests. "A doctor may suggest getting the test more often if a woman has certain risk factors such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection or a weakened immune system. Women 70 years of age and older who have had three or more normal Pap test results and no abnormal results in the last 10 years may choose to stop cervical cancer screening," the society said in a statement.

Cervical cancer affects nearly 500,000 worldwide every year. Detected early, it can be easily treated, but it will kill an estimated 300,000 women this year, mostly in the developing world where screening is not routine. In the United States, the American Cancer Society estimates that 13,000 women will develop cervical cancer this year and that about 4,100 women will die.