Up until recently, there have been annual events that have given me a mix of emotions: birthdays (seriously, this whole growing-older situation seems completely unnecessary), the holidays (they lost a bit of their fun and magic once I became the one responsible for making it all happen), and my annual Pap test.
Although there isn’t much about having my cervical cells harvested that conjures up happy feelings, there is a certain peace of mind that comes with being proactive about my health. Did you know that 90 per cent of cervical cancer can be prevented with regular pap tests? That’s a pretty sweet pay-off! It’s a habit that I got into as a late-teen, and now in my thirties, it’s a routine I’ve perfected. It’s that one doctor’s appointment each year where I set aside some extra prep time, bathing, moisturizing and general primping, because there aren’t many other experiences more up close and personal than this. And if you have to be laying in stirrups covered by nothing but a thin sheet of paper, it’s nice to know you put in that extra time with your appearance.
Things have changed, though. A group of doctors, nurses, and healthcare experts led by a group called Toward Optimized Practice (TOP), have revised the Pap test guidelines to say that most women need Pap tests just once every three years instead of every year. Women can also start having routine Pap tests at a later age; it’s no longer recommended that testing is done on girls younger than age 21. At my last exam, my doctor was one of those who agreed with the recommendations. According to her, I don’t need to return for a pap test until three years have passed.
But isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?
Well yes, but maybe it’s a lot simpler than that. It seems as though the definition of “routine” is the only thing that has changed. Where routine was once considered “every year,” routine now means “once every three years.” According to Alberta Health Services, the new guidelines have been designed so that women can avoid unnecessary testing while still benefitting from cervical screening. And now that there are improved lab technologies for reading Pap tests, and there is a better understanding of how cervical cancer develops, experts in Alberta feel that testing more often than every three years is unnecessary.
Dr. Jim Dickinson supports the change in Pap test recommendations, saying that they will be more efficient and more valuable.
“You’re still going to pick up the cancers,” Dr. Dickinson says, “but you’re not going to waste everyone’s time, effort and emotional energy dealing with non-cancers.”
Having abnormal pap results can be very stressful. Some changes found in pap tests may go away on their own; to follow every little lead that crops up may result in a wild goose chase of tests, running after something that might ultimately resolve itself.
Some doctors disagree with these recommendations, however, encouraging their patients to return each year for their pap tests. Unfortunately, there are women who have had normal pap test results one year, and return eighteen months later only to find themselves with cervical cancer. This type of cancer tends to be a relatively slow-progressing one, however. If you follow the new guidelines, abnormal results can be caught and treated.
When discussing this topic, most women will fall into one of two schools of thought. One group will celebrate the idea of a less-frequent Pap test existence, and the other group will err on the side of caution. The good news is that Alberta Health Services will continue to cover annual pap tests for women, even if their results consistently come back as normal. If you feel more confident having annual screening, it is your right to have it done. At the end of the day, it is our responsibility as women and mothers to be our number one health advocates. If you feel confident following Alberta’s newest Pap tests recommendations, relax and enjoy your years in between tests. And if you feel more comfortable having it done every year, have at it. Here’s to our health and the ways we take ownership of it.
By: Kerri Leland