January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. As a women’s health nurse practitioner who has seen firsthand the devastating impacts of cervical cancer, my clinical scholarship is focused on spreading awareness about this preventable cancer. With routine screening and uptake of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine, no woman in America should die from cervical cancer.
Everywhere I go, I share information about screenings, preventative steps and more. GET PAP is even the message on my car tag, hopefully serving as a reminder for individuals to schedule their annual preventive services visit with their primary care provider. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health recommend that every woman schedules an annual well-woman examination. This exam serves the primary purpose of screening to prevent the onset of infections and cancer, and during this visit, the primary care provider will perform necessary screenings based on evidence-based guidelines.
Cervical cancer is unique in that signs and symptoms are not observed by the patient until later stages of the disease. Screening is crucial to catch this cancer early. The preferred screening is co-testing which can be performed with a Pap test and screening for HPV, an infection easily spread by skin-to-skin contact, that can cause cervical cancer.
While the screening is simple, understanding current cervical cancer screening guidelines can be confusing. Most women have a fast-paced lifestyle and might forget the last time a Pap test was performed, but maintaining an annual well-woman examination allows the patient and primary care provider to keep track of screenings.
The opportunity to prevent cervical cancer is also increasing. In 2018, the FDA expanded its approval of the HPV vaccine to include females and males up to 45 years old. I encourage everyone to get this vaccine which protects against all nine HPV strains. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, and the earlier an individual receives the vaccine, the lower their chance of contracting HPV. HPV is also spread by skin-to-skin contact in persons who are not sexually active.
I am an advocate for this vaccine because, in my practice, I have seen firsthand the positive impact it has on cervical cancer prevention. I see fewer abnormal Pap test results among women and rarely see genital warts in patients who have received the HPV vaccine. I hope more individuals protect themselves and others through this vaccine.
My personal motto is “We cannot take care of others if we do not take care of ourselves,” and that is the reason why I faithfully schedule my annual well-woman examination. As the new year begins, I encourage all women reading this blog to schedule and encourage others to schedule a well-woman examination with their primary care provider, who will let them know if it is time to GET PAP.
Current cervical cancer screening guidelines include:
- <21 years old: No testing needed
- 21-29 years old: Pap test every 3 years
- 30-65 years old: Co-testing every 5 years (preferred method) or Pap test every 3 years
- 65 years old or older: No testing needed with adequate negative previous screenings
Refer to cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/pdf/guidelines.pdf for more details regarding when cervical cancer screenings are no longer needed.
Aimee Holland, DNP, CRNP, WHNP-BC, NP-C, FAANP, is an Associate Professor and Assistant Dean for Graduate Clinical Education‑ DNP at UAB School of Nursing. She is Chair for the Board of Directors of the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health (NPWH). Her expertise includes women’s health, including performing gynecology procedures, reproductive life counseling and preventative services in the college health setting.