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Marie Savard, MD
Dr. Savard is an internationally recognized internist, author, & patient advocate. She is the author of The Body Shape Solution to Weight Loss and Wellness: The Apples and Pears Approach to Losing Weight; How to Save Your Own Life; and The Savard Health Record.

Cervical Cancer Prevention Tips: What Every Woman Should Know

Research has shown that the more involved and informed women are in managing their own health, the better the outcome. However, today's women are deluged with information and misinformation. Very often, it becomes difficult to break through the clutter and get a true understanding of the most important and up-to-date prevention and treatment methods. For example, women are constantly hearing about the importance of a yearly gynecological exam. Yet, many women don't know what the Pap smear- a test most have gotten every year since they turned 18 or so - is designed to do, or whether there is anything else they should be doing to prevent cervical cancer.

The bottom line is that we now know that the human papillomavirus (HPV) causes most cases of cervical cancer and that there is a test available -- the HPV test -- that can detect the presence of the virus. The Pap, in which a lab technician examines a sample of cervical cells for signs of abnormalities caused by HPV, is very effective test - much of the time. However, it is not foolproof and some women at risk are missed. Thus, doctors increasingly agree that the best way to protect women is to test for high-risk types of HPV at the same time the Pap in women age 30 years and older - the group most likely to develop cervical cancer.

HPV has been in the news lately due to a new vaccine that will protect against two of the most common potentially cancer-causing types of the virus. This is very good news. However, while the vaccine offers new hope and is a breakthrough medical advancement, regular screening is still necessary. Women will remain at risk for cervical cancer because it is most effective before women become sexually active and because the vaccine will not protect against all types of cancer-causing HPV.

We have the tools today to make cervical cancer obsolete. Women should take the following simple steps to be their own best health advocate:

  • Schedule yearly doctor visits and develop a list of questions to discuss with your doctor. If you have a lot of questions, mention this to the office staff when making your appointment. If you're age 30 and older and interested in having the HPV test, be sure to ask your doctor's office about this option as well - ideally before you're already in the office. When asking for the HPV test, make it clear that you want it regardless of your Pap result. Some doctors only order the HPV test if a woman's Pap is inconclusive.
  • Make sure to get the right tests at the right time: Annual screening with a Pap test should begin approximately three years after a woman has participated in sexual intercourse for the first time, or at the age of 21 - whichever comes first. Until the age of 30, women should have a Pap test every year. Beginning at age 30, women should ask their doctor or nurse for the HPV test at the same time as their Pap.
  • Follow up on test results! No news is not necessarily good news. It's a good idea for you to give your doctor's office a self-addressed stamped envelope so the results can be mailed to you.
  • Set goals with your doctor or nurse for your next visit.

For more information about HPV & cervical cancer, click here.

Created: 7/28/2006  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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