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Queens Chronicle

The Pap Smear Is Not Enough

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Posted: Thursday, July 15, 2004 12:00 am

Many Americans may be surprised to learn that cervical cancer is perhaps the only cancer for which we can identify a specific cause—and that can be prevented by testing for it. Unfortunately, countless women continue to rely solely on their annual Pap smear, which when used alone can miss the signs of a developing cancer. While it is true that regular use of the Pap test has caused a significant decrease in the number of Americans who die from the disease, it fails to identify between 15 and 50 percent of women with cervical cancer or precancerous cells.

What many women don’t realize is that the cause of cervical cancer is known. That cause, the human papillomavirus (HPV), is found in 100 percent of women with cervical cancer. More alarming is the fact that approximately 80 percent of sexually active adults will contract HPV at some point in their lives. Most women who contract the virus, however, will eliminate it, leaving a small number of women who test persistently positive for the virus, increasing their risk for cervical cancer. Now, with a test for high-risk strains of the virus approved for use with the Pap in women age 30 and older, women at risk can be identified and monitored, increasing the chance of early detection and successful treatment.

However, while the HPV test is a breakthrough new tool for preventing a cancer that still robs thousands of women every year of their ability to bear children—or even of their lives—many are still not benefiting from it. According to nationally known women’s health and “patient empowerment” expert Dr. Marie Savard, “Many doctors still do not routinely screen women for HPV, so it is important for women to be assertive. Female patients can ensure they receive the HPV test by calling their doctor’s office to request it ahead of time and knowing whether or not their insurance company reimburses for it, which most do.”

HPV can stay dormant in the body for months, even years, before it becomes detectable—meaning that women need to be tested for HPV and monitored for cell changes even when they and their partners have maintained a long-term, monogamous relationship. HPV usually disappears on its own without causing problems, but in some women—usually found in women 30 and older—the infection persists, putting them at risk of cervical cancer if left undetected.

“Finding out I had cervical cancer was a complete shock to me. I had been getting regular check-ups, including PAP tests and felt healthy,” says cervical cancer survivor Peggy Clarke. “With the HPV test, women can learn early on if they are at risk for cervical cancer, because knowing your HPV status should be as important as monitoring your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.”

For more information about HPV, the HPV test and cervical cancer prevention, visit www.TheHPVTest.com.

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