Is Pap Testing Better Than HPV Vaccination?

Good news: The decision to be vaccinated for HPV or receive regular Pap testing isn't either/or. Image: Andy Newson

Good news: The decision to be vaccinated for HPV or receive regular Pap testing isn’t either/or. Image: Andy Newson

It’s January, which means that it’s Cervical Health Awareness Month! If you have a cervix, there are two big things you can do to protect its health: get vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) before becoming sexually active, and receive regular Pap testing after becoming sexually active. When you take both of these steps, you can maximize what modern medicine has to offer. However, some people think you can just do one and ignore the other. Are they right?

You’ve probably heard of HPV, which causes genital warts and certain cancers. This virus has the dubious honor of being the most common sexually transmitted pathogen — some call it “the common cold of STDs.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “HPV is so common that nearly all sexually-active men and women get it at some point in their lives. This is true even for people who only have sex with one person in their lifetime.”


HPV isn’t just the “cervical cancer virus” — it’s a jack of all trades that can trigger cellular abnormalities all over the body.


One of the cancers most commonly caused by HPV is cervical cancer. In fact, when Gardasil, the most popular HPV vaccine in the United States, made its debut, it was marketed as a “cervical cancer vaccine,” despite the fact that HPV can cause other types of cancer. Nevertheless, a vaccine that could protect against such a common and potentially dangerous virus was good news indeed. However, some critics were quick to point out that cervical cancer is rare in the United States, thanks to widespread access to Pap testing, an effective screening procedure that can catch cellular abnormalities when they are still in their “precancerous” stages, allowing them to be treated before progressing to cancer.

For those of us planning to receive regular Pap testing, is vaccination really necessary? Likewise, if we’ve been vaccinated against HPV, do we really need regular Pap tests? Let’s examine both questions separately. Continue reading

Are Pap Tests Accurate?

If you follow health news, you might have noticed some controversy over certain cancer-screening methods: Does the evidence support mammograms as a tool to reduce breast cancer deaths? Are PSA tests effective in saving lives from prostate cancer? These are questions that we are beginning to answer as more and more evidence comes in. But don’t let these questions dissuade you from all cancer screening.


With regular Pap testing, cervical cancer is almost 100 percent preventable.


In fact, although we’re reevaluating data for other cancer-screening methods, we have mountains of solid evidence that the Pap test is one of the best cancer-screening methods out there. Because it detects signature mutations that mark cells as headed toward becoming cancerous, Pap testing detects “pre” cancer while other cancer-screening techniques, like mammography, only detect cancer.

Cervical cancer used to be a top killer in developed nations — and it remains a major cause of death in countries without widespread health-care access — but in the last 50 years, cervical cancer deaths fell by 70 percent in the United States, transforming cervical cancer from the leading cause of cancer death among American women to a less common, nearly preventable cancer. Despite this, you might hear people complain that the Pap test isn’t accurate, citing the possibility of receiving “false positive” or “false negative” results.

A Pap test looks for abnormalities in cervical cells, and you can receive one of these four results:

True Positive: Cellular abnormalities are detected, and they are in fact present. True Negative: Cellular abnormalities are not detected, and in fact the cells are normal.
False Positive: Cellular abnormalities are detected, but the cells are actually normal. False Negative: Cellular abnormalities are not detected, but are actually present.

When we receive a true positive result, we can receive treatment for precancerous lesions that in fact might otherwise lead to cancer. Likewise, when we receive a true negative result, no further treatment is needed. Continue reading

How Often Do I Need a Pap Test?

Almost 80 years ago, Dr. George Papanicolaou developed a simple test, the Pap test (also called the Pap smear), done in a doctor’s office to check for cervical cancer. During a pelvic exam, a doctor swabs a small sample of cervical tissue and looks for abnormal cells. If these precancerous cells are detected, it will lead to more tests or other more invasive treatments such as a colposcopy (in which actual tissue may be removed). In the 1930s, when Papanicolaou was developing his test, cervical cancer was more lethal than breast cancer. But since the development of this test, the number of women dying from cervical cancer has dropped dramatically. In 2009, of the 4,000 women in the United States who died of cervical cancer, most had never been screened or had not been screened in the 10 years before their diagnosis.


This year, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended less frequent Pap testing.


Cervical cancer is most common in women between ages 35 and 55, and usually develops from a human papillomavirus or HPV infection. Not all HPV infections lead to cervical cancer, and it can take decades for a persistent infection with a high-risk type of HPV to become cancer. High-risk HPV types are sexually transmitted and can lead to cervical cancer and also anal, penile, and oral cancers.

There are two types of screening: Pap tests and HPV tests. While they both require a pelvic exam in which cells are taken from the cervix, Pap tests look for abnormal or precancerous cells, and HPV tests look for DNA or RNA from high-risk HPV types in cervical cells. Both tests are used to try to catch cervical cancer in its earliest stages so that it can be successfully treated. Continue reading

Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 7: Pap Testing

Low-grade lesions of cervical cells, which can be treated before progressing to cancer. Image: National Cancer Institute

Low-grade lesions of cervical cells, which can be treated before progressing to cancer. Image: National Cancer Institute

Welcome to the latest installment of “Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does,” a series on Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona’s blog that highlights Planned Parenthood’s diverse array of services — the ones Jon Kyl doesn’t know about.

Pap tests are not beloved — there, I said it. Many people who receive them hope for the day that medical science devises an equally effective but noninvasive test, whatever that might entail, as they may find them to be anything from slightly awkward to incredibly traumatizing. However, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that access to Pap testing (also called Pap smears) has transformed cervical cancer from a top killer into something that can be caught early and treated before it can do much damage. As a tool to reduce cancer deaths, Pap tests have been a resounding success.


In countries with widespread access to Pap tests, cervical cancer rates have plummeted.


A Pap test involves an instrument called a speculum being placed into the vagina to hold it open while a health care provider uses a small spatula or a tiny brush to collect cells from the cervix, which is at the opening of the uterus. These cells are analyzed in a laboratory, where a technician can determine if they are precancerous. (Cervical cancer is caused by a sexually transmitted virus called human papillomavirus, or HPV.) When caught in its precancerous stages, cervical cancer can be treated with procedures such as colposcopy and cryotherapy.

Pap testing guidelines have recently changed. Continue reading