Cervical cancer is an extremely serious illness that is considered to be one of the leading causes of death for American women. Countless researchers are now looking for ways to prevent the often fatal disease. They have found that the first step is proper and accurate testing; particularly testing that can predict a future development of the cancer. And now they feel that HPV tests are actually the best way to test for cervical cancer.

Reuters reports on a new study about testing for cervical cancer.

The study showed that human papillomavirus tests actually provided women with more accurate results about whether they were likely to develop or had started developing cervical cancer.

Proper testing is extremely important in cervical cancer cases in particular, because it is so difficult to detect. It is often not found until women are in stage three or stage four. And by then it is often too difficult to treat and/or has spread through out her body.

Usually pap smears have been used to test for cervical cancer. How do these work? Reuters explains, “Pap smears, which require doctors to collect cells from the cervix to look for abnormalities, have traditionally been used to determine whether a woman is at risk of developing cancer in the near future.”

Why were HPV tests better than pap tests? Researchers said negative HPV tests (in comparison with pap tests) gave women more reliable assurance that they would not develop cervical cancer or other abnormal cervical alterations in the next three years.

Reuters offers statistics on the topic saying,

“About 12,000 U.S. women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2010 and about 4,000 died from the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Roughly 91 percent of cervical cancers are thought to be caused by HPV. In 2012, the government-backed U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended women between ages 21 and 65 years be screened using a Pap test every three years and said those ages 30 to 65 years could instead opt for cotesting, which is a Pap test in combination with a HPV test, every five years.”

Testing for HPV is also important. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection and both women and men are affected by it. Around seventy-nine million people have the HPV infection but most of them do not know they are infected because the symptoms are quite unusual. HPV testing requires physicians to put together cells like they would during a Pap test but the end result is whether the woman has the virus – showing not abnormal cells.

How was this new study conducted?

“Researchers used data from over one million women who were between ages 30 and 64 years and screened for cervical cancer at Kaiser Permanente Northern California since 2003. The researchers followed women who had a negative Pap or HPV test to see whether they developed cervical cancer during the next three years. They also looked at how many women developed cervical cancer in the five years following co-testing,” according to Reuters.

The researchers actually were not surprised by their findings. Mrs. Gage, who authored the study, told Reuters that she expected HPV tests to give more assurance than pap tests. What were the particular results? Reuters reports, “Overall, about 20 women out of 100,000 developed cervical cancer in the three years following a negative Pap test. That compared to 11 women out of 100,000 who developed the cancer during the three years after receiving a negative HPV test. About 14 women out of 100,000 developed cervical cancer in the five years following negative co-tests, according to results published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.”

The researchers said they are not calling for the abolishment of pap smears. But rather, they are saying that HPV tests seem to be more accurate and can show women who have a higher predisposition for developing the disease that they are at risk and will probably develop abnormal cervical cells at some point.

CBS news also reported on the study.

“The findings support current guidelines that advise that both tests be used in cervical cancer screening. Certain types of HPV cause nearly all cervical cancers. A Pap test detects abnormal cell changes associated with cervical cancer, and both the Pap and the HPV test involve the use of cells collected from the cervix. The risk of developing cervical cancer within three years after a negative HPV test was about half the already low risk seen after a negative Pap test, the study found,” according to CBS. The new study used a large array of women between the ages of 30 to 64 in California.

Many experts praised the study saying that it provides evidence of which test gives greater assurance for whether a person is likely to develop cervical cancer later. When caught in its earlier stages the cancer is much more treatable. They also caution that a negative HPV test does not mean that a woman is necessarily cervical cancer free for life.

Dr. Mario Leitao Jr., a gynecological surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, told Reuters, “We always have to reconsider how we’re screening patients and focus on the best way to screen for certain cancer. I think this is very interesting because instead of doing (Pap tests) every three years you could do HPV (tests) every three years. There will be a lot of variables in deciding which test is best for women. The best way to do it is still to be determined but it’s important they have some form of cervical cancer screening at least every three years.”

Dr. Leitao also interestingly emphasized the point that women need to be their own best advocates. He said not to get sucked into having pap tests every year. He said it should not be done more than once every three years and that women must speak up to their doctors if they try to force more testing than this reasonable standard of care.


Gerry Oginski
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