Why should women have regular Pap tests?

January 26, 2001

Why should women have regular Pap tests?

By KATE COLEMAN / Staff Writer

Do you want to know the warning signs of cervical cancer?

Guess what?

There are no warning signs.


That's scary, when you consider the American Cancer Society estimated that last year there would be about 12,800 new cases of the disease.

That's bad news.

Is there good news?

In most cases, cervical cancer is preventable, says Dr. Andrew J. Oh, a Hagerstown gynecologist and obstetrician.


The first step is screening - the Pap test. It is a microscopic examination of cells in and around the cervix (the lower, narrow end of the uterus that forms a canal between the uterus and the vagina).


The Pap test and pelvic examination can detect abnormalities that may lead to cancer.

In case you're not convinced, look at these numbers:

Developed in the 1940s by Dr. George Papanicolaou, the test is credited with reducing death of cervical cancer by 73 percent since 1950, according to a U.S. Clinical Preventive Services Task Force report.

Last year, Dr. Mitesh Kothari, a Hagerstown obstetrician and gynecologist, treated five women with cervical cancer. One has died.

"No one should be getting cervical cancer," he says. It's a shame that women are dying of the disease in countries where they don't have access to health care, but it's ridiculous that American women don't get regular Pap tests, he says.

If they think they can't afford it, they need to think again.

Washington County Health Department offers free Pap tests, pelvic and breast exams at its regular clinics in Hagerstown, Hancock and Keedysville. If problems are discovered and further testing and treatment are needed, the Diagnostic and Treatment Program may help pay for it.

The Breast and Cervical Cancer Program, (BCCP) offers free mammograms, Pap tests, pelvic and breast exams for women ages 40 to 64 years old who have a low income or don't have health insurance that covers those screenings.

Health agencies in other Tri-State jurisdictions have similar programs.

Who should have a Pap test?

Women 18 years old or older or who are sexually active should have Pap tests. The risk of cervical cancer does not increase much after age 40, but it doesn't decrease either. Older women should continue getting the test, according to information on the Web site of the American Cancer Society,

How often?

Yearly tests are recommended, but if a woman has had three normal tests within three years, the health-care provider may recommend testing less often, according to the American Cancer Society.

Because the Pap test is not perfect, physicians Oh and Kothari prefer annual testing. Sometimes test results are "under-read," sometimes "over-read," Oh says. If tests are spaced out too far, the risk of missing abnormal cells is greater.

A kit which would allow a woman to collect a vaginal sample at home recently received a U.S. patent. Even if such a do-it-yourself kit were equally effective as the Pap test, Oh wouldn't recommend it.

"The Pap test is only part of the pelvic (exam)," Oh says. There is an advantage of having a trained professional look at the cervix, he says.

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