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Clearing Up the Confusion on When to Get a Pap Test
Date:1/2/2013

By Serena Gordon
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 2 (HealthDay News) -- Figuring out when to be screened for this cancer or that can leave women's heads spinning.

Screening guidelines have been changing for an array of cancers, and sometimes even the experts don't agree on what screenings need to be done when. But for cervical cancer, there seems to be more of a general consensus on which women need to be screened, and at what ages those screenings should be done.

The main cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV), according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HPV is very prevalent, and most people will be infected with the virus at some point in their lives, according to Dr. Mark Einstein, a gynecologic oncologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

"But, it's only in very few people that HPV will go on to cause cancer," Einstein explained. "That's what makes this type of cancer very amenable to screening. Plus, it takes a long time to develop into cancer. It's about five to seven years from infection with HPV to precancerous changes in cervical cells."

During that stage, he said, it's possible that the immune system will take care of the virus and any abnormal cells without any medical intervention. Even if the precancerous cells linger, it still generally takes five or more additional years for cancer to develop.

Dr. Radhika Rible, an assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, Los Angeles, agreed that HPV is often nothing to worry about.

"HPV is very, very prevalent, but most women who are young and healthy will clear the virus with no consequences," Rible said. "It rarely progresses to cancer, so it's not anything to be worried or scared about, but it's important to stick with the guidelines because, if it does cause any problems, we can stop it early."

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