Guidelines on cervical cancer tests present dilemma

(CBS News) - The government put out new guidelines Wednesday for screening cervical cancer. The disease is highly preventable, but it still kills more than 4,000 women in the United States every year. CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook explains the new recommendations.

The new guidelines present women and their doctors with a difficult decision. For decades women have been told to get a Pap smear as often as once a year.

While the new recommendation calls for a test every three years for women 21 to 65, some ages 30 to 65 are being told they can wait five years if they get an additional test for human papillomavirus or HPV.

New cervical cancer screening guidelines say no Pap tests for women under 21
Video: New guidelines for cervical cancer screening

The Pap smear looks for abnormal cells in the cervix. The HPV test looks for the virus that causes virtually all cervical cancers. The task force says waiting five years is reasonable because if both Pap and HPV tests are negative, women are at very low risk for developing cervical cancer.

Gynecologist Dr. Joan Kent is just starting to talk about the new guidelines with her patients.

"Half were thrilled that we could prolong the interval testing," she said, "and about half said, 'No, I'd really rather you go ahead and do the testing anyway.'"

"What's your comfort level with going to five years?" asked LaPook.

"I think in a lot of situations, I would be comfortable with three years," said Kent. "Five years I think is a jump for many of us who were trained to do a Pap test annually. I don't know how I'd feel about five years yet."

Screening too frequently can lead to false alarms and unnecessary worry, testing, and procedures. The problem from the doctors' point of view, LaPook said, is we don't want to miss anything, even if it's once in blue moon. So it's a balancing act between the guidelines and what we're comfortable actually doing in our practices.

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook

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