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Cancer Questions

From Pap guidelines to all the buzz about HPV, Ann Ressetar, MD, answers your questions about cervical cancer

Between 1955 and 1992, increased use of the Pap test helped drive cervical cancer death rates down by 70 percent. Here's more good news: The HPV vaccine, introduced in 2006, could deal another huge blow to cervical cancer.

Ann Ressetar, MD, a gynecologist and attending physician with Northwest Community Healthcare, ties all your questions together with this quick Q&A.

Q: What is the best way to detect cervical cancer?

A: The Pap test detects microscopic abnormalities and is the best approach to protect women from cervical cancer.

Q: What is all this talk about HPV?

A: HPV is short for human papillomavirus, which is a group of viruses that are sexually transmitted. Certain high-risk HPVs are linked to cervical and other cancers. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), two out of three cervical cancers are caused by HPV.

Q: Can HPV be prevented?

A: Practicing safe sex can help prevent HPV infection. Additionally, there are two vaccines that target high-risk, cancer-causing HPVs. The ACS recommends routine vaccination for girls and boys at age 11 or 12.

The HPV vaccine is just like getting a flu shot or shingles vaccine—it doesn't guarantee that you won't have problems with HPV, but it does help your body fight off its effects.

Q: How often should I have a Pap test?

A: Women ages 21 to 29 should have a Pap test every three years. Women ages 30 to 65 should get both the Pap test and HPV test—which detects the presence of HPV infection—every five years (or the Pap test alone every three years).

Even though newer guidelines ease the interval for Pap tests to once every three or five years depending on age, it's very important that women continue to schedule annual well-woman exams. We still need to assess breast, pelvic and vulvar health annually.

Q: What else can I do?

A: Talk to your healthcare provider about any individual risks that may warrant more frequent Pap testing. And, if you need yet another reason to quit smoking, HPV-related cervical cancer is it. Smoking makes HPV more active.

Malcolm Bilimoria, MD

Ann Ressetar, MD

Gynecologist and Attending Physician at NCH

  • Medical school: Northwestern University
  • Residency: Michael Reese Medical Center
  • Board-certified: Obstetrics and gynecology

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Last Updated 04/10/2009