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What women need to know about new cancer screening guidelines

By Kathleen Troher, health enews, a news service from Advocate Health Care

Women now have another option when it comes to cervical cancer screening.

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force says women ages 30 to 65 can consider having the human papillomavirus, or HPV, test alone every five years. This gives women three choices for cervical cancer screening. The other two were previously recommended by the task force, and they remain options. They are a Pap test alone every three years or an HPV test plus a Pap test every five years.

For women ages 21 to 29, the task force recommends Pap tests alone every three years. The panel recommends against screening for women younger than 21 and for women older than 65 who have had adequate prior screening and are not otherwise at high risk for cervical cancer. Screenings also are not recommended for women who have had hysterectomies with removal of the cervix and don’t have a history of high-grade precancerous lesions or cervical cancer.

The recommendations, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, are the first update on cervical cancer screening from the task force since 2012.

Dr. Amina Ahmed, an oncology-gynecology physician at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, Ill., says she recommends the Pap test plus the HPV test in combination. She adds that cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that can be prevented with screening.

“There is a long latent phase between pre-cancerous cells of the cervix and development of cervical cancer,” Dr. Ahmed says. “Therefore, with regular screening, pre-cancer can be detected and treated, thereby preventing cervical cancer.”

In 2018, about 13,240 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed, and about 4,170 women will die from the disease. It was once the most common cause of cancer death for women in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society, but the death rate decreased substantially when screening was implemented widely.

The first routinely used screening, the Pap test, finds cell changes or abnormal cells in the cervix. The Pap test can find cell changes before cancer develops or can catch it early, when it’s easier to cure.

The HPV test doesn’t check for cell changes. Instead, it’s used to look for the virus that causes the cells to change.

Both the Pap test and the HPV test can be done at the same time and are performed in the same way, using a swab to lightly scrap cells off the cervix.

Women should talk with their doctor about both tests – find a doctor near you now. 

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