There are very few areas of medicine that come to a halt or even slow down as we age. Doctors’ visits, medications, check-ups, and those oh-so-pleasant aches and pains just keep on piling up. You need a calendar just to keep track of it all!
That’s why, when your GYN recommends throwing in the towel on Pap smears, it will likely sound somewhat confusing. But the truth is, as we age the frequency with which Pap Smears are performed can be tailored tremendously. In fact, for most of us it can be totally tossed, assuming that your cervix has cooperated and been checked and free of cancer or CIN (the precursor to cervical cancer) for many years. Here’s why.
Pap smear guidelines have changed big time in the past several years. Taking a page out of our friendly Glamour, “yearly is so out,” and every three years or in some cases, never again is so in. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has re-written the Pap smear guideline’s ending, and this is how this story goes…
If chapters 1–5 (that is, ages 21–64 years old) have been pretty clean and clear, once you hit the big 6-5 you can call it quits with Pap smear screening. In the land of cervical cancer screening, clean and clear refer to three consecutive negative (normal) Pap smear results or two consecutive negative co-tests (Pap smears plus HPV testing) within the past 10 years.
To top it all off, the most recent Pap smear test must have been done in the past five years. And while words like co-testing may sound like Swahili, just knowing what to ask your GYN when it comes to Pap smears and when to ask these questions will make sure that they don’t play on and on and on… (#BrokenRecord)
If chapters 1–5 (a.k.a. 21–64 years old) were not totally clean and clear, then you might have to do some editing before you can close the Pap smear chapter. The exception to the “once you turn 65 years old break-up rule” are women who have a history of abnormal Pap smears/cervical screening in the past, specifically a history of CIN 2, CIN 3, or adenocarcinoma in situ. (Think of CIN as a staircase: the higher you get, the closer you are to cervical cancer.) If you fall into this group, you need 20 years of screening after the resolution or treatment of the CIN 2 and beyond, even if it takes you past the 65-year-old mark.
And while there are likely some terms in here that are making you do a double take (a.k.a. CIN and adenocarcinoma in situ), knowing the specifics is really secondary to simply having the knowledge to start the conversation with your doctor. For example, if you know for sure that you have never had any or all of the above (CIN 2, CIN 3, or adenocarcinoma) and your doctor is still performing Pap smears on you at 67…it’s time to start asking questions.
If you had a hysterectomy before reaching the magic 6-5, you might be able to bid Pap smears adieu at an even earlier age. In fact, women who had a hysterectomy with removal of the cervix and never had a history of CIN 2, CIN 3, adenocarcinoma in situ, or cancer can stop Pap smears immediately following the removal of the uterus. Those that had a hysterectomy with removal of the cervix and have had a history of CIN 2, CIN3, adenocarcinoma in situ, or cancer must continue with Pap smears. Again, you will need 20 years of screening after the resolution or treatment of the CIN 2+ before you can call it quits.
Last, if you had a hysterectomy and kept your cervix (a.k.a. a supracervical hysterectomy), you can’t bid your Pap smears a fond farewell until you hit 65 (or longer, depending on your history).
And while you might be breaking up for good with your Pap smear, let us be very clear that you are not saying goodbye to your GYN. There are many more topics and tests that are checked at your yearly visit (as well as a good old fashion chat!). Maintaining an ongoing relationship with your GYN is important—remember, you have many reproductive organs other than your cervix!