By Kara Condie
Women’s Health magazine says that women these days aren’t taking the time to schedule their regular check-ups. Due to other priorities, women are missing out on essential screenings they should be having. Primary physicians often emphasize the importance of performing a Papanicolaou test (Pap smear) to screen for cervical cancer and Human papillomavirus (HPV), but this screening can be frightening and uncomfortable for some women.
Dr. Julia Jenkins of Palm Harbor, Florida suggests women see a primary care physician every one to two years. It is important for women to receive pelvic exams and pap smears because cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.
“Discussing potential signs or symptoms of any of these issues early can help prevent more complex issues later in life,” Jenkins says.
Jenkins says HPV causes genital warts and can lead to throat, vaginal, and rectal cancer along with other cancers, so it is important to be screened regularly. However, women are able to put off the more intimidating screenings such as Pap smears until they are adults. Prior to 2013, women were being screened for cervical cancer at a younger age, but the guidelines for receiving these screenings have recently changed.
“Guidelines for an annual Pap smear come from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology,” Jenkins says. “They now suggest a Pap smear at 21 years old or one to two years after starting sexual activity.”
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology changed the guidelines from 2006 due to cervical screenings causing lesions and damage to younger women’s cervixes and potentially affecting fertility.
Previously, women under the age of 20 were being screened for cervical cancer, and women over the age of 21 were receiving Pap smears annually. Now, women under the age of 21 should not be screened, unless a woman becomes sexually active. Sexually active women should still wait a year or two before getting screened. It is recommended women at low- or average-risk for HPV or STIs regularly schedule Pap smears every three years.
Victoria Musco, 24 of Wesley Chapel, Florida has received pap smears annually since she was 18 years old.
“I have had [pap smears] since I turned 18, and, five years later, I still hate it,” Musco says.
Pap smears are commonly uncomfortable to receive, but there are ways to make the experience less embarrassing.
“Luckily, my newest gynecologist I’ve had for two years makes me feel comfortable and at ease,” Musco says. “I think an important part of feeling comfortable when you’re so vulnerable is knowing that there’s no judgment.”
Musco also says that a patient can ask her gynecologist any questions and get an honest response without feeling silly. Musco says this is very comforting for women receiving their first pap smears.
“Hopefully we will see less invasive and less embarrassing tools in the future for cervical cancer screening,” Jenkins says. “Most doctors do what they can to lessen any fears or concerns about coming in for [pelvic exams], however.”
Though some tests can be put off, women who notice any change to their body should immediately schedule an appointment with her physician.
“Young women should be in tune with their bodies,” Jenkins says. “Any significant change in menstrual cycles or lack of a cycle is concerning.”
Jenkins also recommends to keep track of breast changes or lumps, sudden change in weight, persistent depression, pelvic or vaginal pain, discomfort urinating or during bowel movements, pain during or after eating, or pain during sexual intercourse. Any new symptom that cannot be explained should be discussed with a primary care doctor.
The guidelines that come with maintaining a healthy body continuously change, and it is important to know how these changes affect each person. Being aware of updated screening guidelines helps prevent life-threatening conditions and makes for a healthier future.