What you need to know before your next annual visit
Amy “Sunshine” Rodriguez, 44, is a radio personality in West Hartford, Connecticut, who loves spending time at the shore enjoying the scenery and her family. The mother of two and grandmother of one found love at a young age and married her husband shortly after. Of the many tales to describe her “Sunshine” life, Rodriguez said she never thought a battle with cervical cancer would be among them.
Now a survivor of cervical cancer, she said she was “completely blindsided” when she was diagnosed. “When my gynecologist called my office to tell me the news, I just didn’t know what to say,” Rodriguez recalls. “I was shocked.”
Not too long ago, Rodriguez’s story would have been fairly common. Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death among women. Today, however, it is one of the most preventable and rare cancers thanks largely to the introduction of the Pap test.
Even with the introduction of Pap testing, 12,000 women, like Rodriguez, are still diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. New changes in medical guidelines may leave some women confused about what to expect at their annual gynecological exams.
“For years, women were told ‘Get your Pap smear every year,’ and so they think that’s all they need. But now we know that many cases of cervical cancer are caused by some strains of human papillomavirus, also known as HPV,” explains Barbara Dehn, a well-known women’s health nurse practitioner and lecturer at Stanford University. “As such, screening for cervical cancer has evolved to include an HPV test in combination with a Pap test in women over 30, but women may not understand the importance of asking about both tests.”
When Rodriguez first heard and asked about HPV testing, she was told that she didn’t need the test because she had married young and her risk for developing an HPV infection — and therefore cervical cancer — was low, which is a common misconception. The reality is, having a long-term sexual partner cannot necessarily protect a woman from developing cervical cancer. It’s not uncommon for women or their partners to contract HPV from an earlier sexual encounter, with the virus remaining dormant for years without causing any problems. As many women often do, Rodriguez skipped her regular visit to her health care provider for a couple of years as she was healthy and young and didn’t think much of it.
When Rodriguez did finally receive a Pap test after experiencing some symptoms, she was in disbelief when her results came back that she had cervical cancer. She resolved to not let the shock of her diagnosis or her subsequent surgeries and intensive treatments keep her down. She has committed herself to helping encourage women to take an active role in their cervical health.
“I decided during treatment that as long as I’m alive and have a voice, I need to help other women,” she says. “No woman should go through what I went through and, thankfully, no woman has to as long as she’s getting appropriate screening.”
What’s recommended today
Current “consensus guidelines” — screening recommendations created by a large group of recognized professional medical societies — recommend Pap+HPV Together as the preferred method for women ages 30 to 65. For women 21 to 29, guidelines recommend Pap-only testing.
The Pap and HPV tests contribute important and distinct information to understanding each woman’s risk of cervical cancer. Recent research shows that screening for cervical cancer with Pap+HPV Together detects more cancer and pre-cancer than either test used alone. Screening with HPV alone may put many women’s lives at risk.*
“There is a lot of information about HPV and cervical cancer out there, and that is why a dialogue about what tests you need during your exam is so important,” Dehn emphasized. “The bottom line is that co-testing with Pap and HPV tests at the same time provides the best possible protection against cervical cancer in women over 30. And, just one sample is taken for the lab to screen with both tests.”
Rodriguez also noted the power of having an informed discussion with a health care provider about screening options.
“I can’t tell you how important it is to educate yourself on all of your options and what you need, even if it seems a little confusing,” she says. “’You have cervical cancer’ is a scary phrase for any woman to stomach. Effective screening can help ensure fewer women have to.”
To learn more about screening with Pap+HPV Together, visit PapPlusHPV.com.
* A positive HPV screening result may lead to further evaluation with cytology and/or colposcopy.