Not Enough Women Are Getting Screened For Cervical Cancer, A New Study Says

by Carolyn de Lorenzo
Woman wearing surgery clothes while sitting on a hospital chair

If getting a pap smear is one of your least favorite things to do, know that it’s still a crucial component to your preventive health care routine. According to research released by the Mayo Clinic, and published in the Journal of Women’s Health, not enough women get screened for cervical cancer, and the numbers of those getting tested might be far lower than previously thought.

According to a recent press release on the research, less than two-thirds of women ages 30 to 65 were current with their cervical cancer screenings in 2016. For millennial women ages 21 to 29 the numbers were even lower — just over half of women surveyed in this age group were up-to-date on cervical cancer screenings.

"These cervical cancer rates are unacceptably low," Mayo Clinic family medicine specialist and lead study author Kathy MacLaughlin, MD, said in the press release. "Routine screening every three years with a Pap test or every five years with a Pap-HPV co-test ensures precancerous changes are caught early and may be followed more closely or treated."

The Mayo Clinic’s researchers also found significant racial disparities in terms of who gets screened for cervical cancer. "African-American women were 50 percent less likely to be up-to-date on cervical cancer screening than white woman in 2016," Dr. MacLaughlin said. "Asian women were nearly 30 percent less likely than white women to be current on screening. These racial disparities are especially concerning." A lack of access to medical care, and mistrust of medical institutions after a legacy of racist and discriminatory health care practices may be at the root of some of these disparities, according to a 2018 study published in the National Institutes of Health.

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Cervical cancer screening recommendations were updated in 2012, researchers write in the study. Pap smears are recommended every three years for women ages 21 to 65, while Pap/Human papillomavirus (HPV) co-testing is advised for women ages 30 to 65 every five years. The study’s authors found that despite the updated recommendations, significant declines in Pap smear testing over time were found among all age groups.

Over 13,000 new cases of invasive cervical cancer were diagnosed in the United States in 2018, according to the American Cancer Society, while 4,170 women died from the illness. The American Cancer Society also says that cervical pre-cancers are diagnosed much more frequently than the invasive form of the illness. While cervical cancer used to be the most common cause of cancer deaths for women in the United States, updated screening recommendations meant that the death rate significantly declined and has held steady for the last 15 years or so, the American Cancer Society says. Screenings help doctors detect cell changes in the cervix *before* they develop into cancer, and early stage cancer is also easier to cure.

If you haven’t worked cervical cancer screening into your health care routine yet, now is the perfect time to start. Make sure to check in with your doctor to find out what their recommendations are, and if you need assistance finding care, Planned Parenthood, and other low-cost reproductive health clinics, can help. Cervical cancer can be often treatable when found early, so keeping up with regular screenings is critical.