You may have heard that the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has just come out with new guidelines for how often women should get Pap smears. Rather than discussing the details of the guidelines, I want to stress one essential fact:
A Pap smear is not an annual pelvic exam. It’s just one small segment. If you’re over 21, you must still get a pelvic examination each year, every year, for as long as you live. Some years the Pap test will be part of the examination and some years, it may not be. Whether you get a Pap has nothing to do with whether you need to be examined.
You do. Here’s why.
During your annual pelvic exam, your physician evaluates you for many diseases and disorders that have nothing to do with Pap smears or cervical cancer. Among the most critical that your doctor checks for are ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, and vulvar cancer.
If caught early, such cancers are highly treatable. If left undetected for years, as I fear might happen should women skip pelvic exams in years when they don’t get Pap tests, such cancers can be killers.
So, no matter what you’ve heard about the change in the guidelines for Pap smears, the take-away is that this change should not affect your behavior in any way; it’s merely guidance for your doctor.
Get your annual pelvic exam as you have in the past. Let your doctor decide whether the Pap should be part of it every two years or three years or if that particular test is necessary after age 70.
Remember that you’re not going to the doctor for just one test that detects just one type of cancer. You’re going to ensure that you’re in good gynecological health, and to get treated promptly if your doctor finds anything wrong.
- Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH