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Study Explores Frequency of Pap Smears

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Every year an estimated 50 million American women get a pap smear.

It's one of the most important tests that a woman can have, helping detect problems early, when they're treatable.

As many women are now faced with the option of less frequent pap smears, what does that do to their risk of getting cervical cancer?

Getting a pap smear is our most effective tool in fighting cervical cancer. Current guidelines suggest low risk women who have had a series of negative tests can do away with yearly paps. Every three years is often enough.

But what does lengthening the interval do to a woman's risk of cancer.

UC San Francisco's Dr. George Sawaya and colleagues tracked 31,000 low-risk women age 30 to 64 who had had three or more negative pap smears and continued to be screened.

As reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, 15 women developed precancerous lesions over the following three years and no one had cancer.

Next they estimated what their risk would be of developing cervical cancer if they were not rescreened for three years.

Dr. George Sawaya/ UCSF: "We found that the risk, the excess risk is about three in 100,000 if a woman extends her interval of screening."

Sawaya says while that increase in risk will seem too great for some women, others will find it acceptable.

"We actually wanted to do this study to try to give women information that they could use to figure out what's the best screening strategy for them. Some women may feel like it's an acceptable risk to go three years and they may not want to have very frequent pap smears, and the inherent false positives that come with very frequent screening."

While there are plenty of reasons to have a yearly check-up--like family planning, screening for sexually transmitted diseases or depression-- low-risk women can safely have pap smears less frequently.

"I think it's really important for women to participate in these decisions and make choices that they feel is right for them. And this certainly could be frequent screening or less frequent screening."

Women who are immunosuppressed from HIV or other medical problems should have yearly pap smears.

And keep in mind this study looked at women age 30 and older. Younger women should have more frequent testing.

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