Confused about the recommendations around how often to be screened for cervical cancer?
If so, that’s not surprising. Guidelines have changed over the years—for instance, prior to 2012, annual Pap tests were recommended for women with no symptoms or history of abnormal results. After that, the recommended interval changed to every three years, since research showed that approach was just as safe and effective as yearly screening.
Now, as more provincial screening programs are switching from Pap smears to HPV tests, recommendations will be changing once again. (HPV or human papilloma virus, is the family of viruses that cause the majority of cervical cancers.) HPV testing is much more sensitive—it detects 94.6% of cervical cancers, while Pap tests only pick up 55.4%, meaning it misses more than half. Consequently, with HPV testing, the length of time between screening can be lengthened to five years, while providing just as much or more protection.
After a certain age, and number of normal results on screening tests, the likelihood of developing a cervical cancer that would affect your life is likely fairly low, so you may want to choose to stop.
A big thank-you to Dr. Nancy Durand for so generously sharing her time and expertise with me, and our readers, for this story. Dr. Durand is an associate professor at the University of Toronto, and works in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
- Overview of Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines (Canadian Partnership Against Cancer)
- Provincial and Territorial Screening Programs (Canadian Cancer Society)