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Dr. JoLyn Seitz: In cancer prevention, Pap smears are critical

Q. Why are Pap smears necessary?

A. A Pap smear or Pap test involves collecting cells from a woman’s cervix to test for cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer with greatly improved outcomes, primarily due to earlier detection and treatment. Cervical cancer is caused by HPV (human papilloma virus), a sexually transmitted viral infection. More than 100 different strains of HPV have been identified, 15 of which are associated with cervical cancer.

Q. Who should have a Pap smear and how often?

A. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that you should start having Pap at age 21. How often depends on your age and health history.

E Women age 21-29 years should have a Pap test every three years

E Women age 30-65 years should have a Pap test and HPV test (co-testing) every five years (preferred). It is acceptable to have a Pap test alone every three years.

E Women should still have a physical exam every year.

Q. What influence does sexual activity have on Pap smears and cervical cancer?

A. If you have an abnormal Pap test, your OB/GYN may also order an HPV test. HPV infection occurs when the virus enters your body through a cut, abrasion or imperceptible tear in the outer layer of your skin. The virus is transferred primarily by skin-to-skin contact during intercourse. If you have not had sexual intercourse, it’s unlikely you would develop HPV. However, family history, smoking and other risk factors can also contribute to development of cervical cancer.

Q. What is the HPV vaccine?

A. The HPV vaccine is recommended for adult women who have never been diagnosed with cervical cancer and for girls/teens who may become or are sexually active. The vaccine can be given safely to girls as young as age 9. An HPV test may also be performed along with a pap smear to identify women who are at a lower or higher risk of developing a cervical abnormality. The ideal time for girls to receive the HPV vaccination is before they become sexually active and become exposed to HPV. For this reason, we recommend that girls get vaccinated by age 11 or 12 and possibly as early as age 9, depending on risk factors. For those already sexually active, we also recommend the HPV vaccination for adolescents and young women up to age 26.

Q. What should I know when scheduling a Pap smear?

A. To make your test as accurate as possible, avoid douching or using any vaginal medicines or spermicidal foams, creams or jellies for two days before the test. Try not to schedule the test during your menstrual period because better samples can be collected if you are not having your cycle.

Q. How long do I need to continue having Pap smears?

A. If you had a total hysterectomy (your uterus and cervix were removed) for a non-cancerous condition, you may no longer need regular Pap smears. If you had a hysterectomy due to a cancerous or precancerous condition or had a partial hysterectomy (your uterus removed but your cervix remains), you should continue to have regular Pap smears. American Cancer Society guidelines say you may be able to stop routine screenings at age 70 if you’ve had three or more normal Pap smears in a row and no abnormal smears for the past 10 years.

Q. What if I have never had a Pap smear or I haven’t had one for many years?

Q. It’s never too late to begin. Early detection of cancer is the most important tool in positive outcomes. A Pap smear is a quick, painless test that can save your life.

Dr. JoLyn Seitz is an OB/GYN at Sanford Bemidji Clinic. Dr. Seitz received her medical education from the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Grand Forks, N.D. She went on to complete her residency at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich. As an OB/GYN physician, Seitz specializes in prenatal care, high risk pregnancy, annual pelvic/pap exams, surgery, robotic-assisted surgery, menopausal care, birth control and minimally invasive procedures for women of all ages. She is originally from Bemidji.