January is Cervical Cancer Screening Month.
As you may know, most cervical cancer is caused by HPV, which is the most commonly transmitted STD and often shows no symptoms. The current best method of protection (other than condoms, but it’s not an either/or choice), is pap smears.
Around 84% of American women have had a pap smear within the last three years. Surprisingly, black women have higher rates of pap smears than white women, but all other ethnicities have lower rates than whites. Less surprisingly, though, (considering our horrid health care system) black women have a higher rates of cervical cancer than whites do, and Hispanic women have the highest rate of all ethnicities. Approximately eight out of every 100,000 Ameircan women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. As it turns out, 60%-80% of women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer have not had a pap smear in the last five years. Luckily death rates are low, but they are lowest among whites and highest among blacks with Hispanics falling in the middle. This is likely because the risk of cancer increases with fewer pap smears, and the risk of death increases the longer the cancer goes undiagnosed.
The recommendations for frequency of screening differ from country to country and from doctor to doctor. In America, once a year is generally recommended; in Australia, for example, it’s every two years. But there does seem to be a consensus that more than three years is too long.
So, if you’re due for a pap smear, go. If you’ve never had one, go. No, they’re not the most fun thing in the world. But I’ve had a lot worse medical tests, and as long as you have a doctor who knows what he/she is doing, it doesn’t hurt. In the off chance that it does hurt, don’t be an idiot like I was as a teenager: say something. This is a great resource explaining what happens during a pap smear and pelvic exam. And if you know someone who is due but not going, get on her ass. Many clinics — Planned Parenthoods included — offer pap smears on a sliding scale fee structure, so call around. It’s a lot better to go “for nothing” (not have any abnormal results) than to not go and end up wishing you had. Oh, and if you are eligible for the HPV vaccine and can afford it . . . get it.