January 18, 2019
Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of death for women in the U.S. In the 1950s, the groundbreaking Pap test finally provided a simple, game-changing screen that could detect precancerous cervical cells long before they develop into cancer. As we know with all cancer, early detection is critical. Thanks to the Pap test, cervical cancer is one of the easiest to find, but only if you’re looking for it.
Even with the Pap, cervical cancer is still a problem, however. Despite the ability to detect early stages of the disease with near certainty, a lack of primary care is leaving too many women vulnerable. Today, a quarter of adults don’t have a primary care provider (PCP), and the younger generations are even worse about seeking regular care than their elders. In fact, for 18- to 29-year-olds, the number without a PCP jumps to nearly half. This lack of regular, consistent care is especially critical for things like cervical cancer that are typically caught in a routine exam.
Since the advent of the Pap test, the number of deaths from cervical cancer has decreased by an astounding 70 percent, but that number could be higher. If it’s been a while since you’ve had a regular checkup, chances are you’re due for a Pap test, along with clinical breast and pelvic exams, a blood pressure check and maybe even a cholesterol count. Generally, people who see their provider regularly are more in tune with their health, more aware of their personal risk factors and identify problems earlier than people who rarely see a provider. If you’re overdue for a checkup (including a Pap test), here’s a 5-step game plan to making it happen.
1. Find a PCP you like. People are more inclined to see their provider if it’s easy and pleasant. If it takes three weeks to get an appointment, and then when you finally do get in, you are rushed through the motions, you may need a new provider. Nurse practitioners (NPs) are generally more accessible and spend more time getting to know patients, which can result in better, more personalized care.
2. Commit to prevention. It’s easy to shrug off an annual checkup if you feel healthy, but the whole point is to uncover problems before symptoms develop. A Pap test is done in the office by your provider and takes as little as five minutes. A whole physical exam can be done in less than a half hour, especially if you’ve seen the provider before.
3. Plan ahead. January is the perfect time to schedule annual checkups, so get yours on the books before time gets away from you. In addition to your PCP, call your dentist and dermatologist, and if you haven’t had a mammogram in a while, schedule that too.
4. Know the facts. Most patients don’t know enough about cervical cancer to feel compelled to actively prevent it. Virtually all cases are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted disease. Asymptomatic, self-healing bouts of HPV can lead to cervical cancer without you knowing you ever had it, so get screened if you’re sexually active.
5. Understand the other risks. Smoking, HIV, chlamydia, excess weight and long-term birth control use all increase your risk of developing cervical cancer, widening the net of people who should undergo regular screening. When in doubt, talk to your provider about when and how often you should be screened.
6. Explore your options. Today you have more care options than ever before. If a traditional office visit just won’t work, NPs have you covered in nearly 3,000 retail clinics, where you can walk in for fast service, including Pap tests and other important screens. Before you let another year go by without seeing a provider, make an impromptu trip to knock these off your to-do list.
Most people kick off each new year with lofty resolutions while overlooking the low-hanging fruit. Vowing to get a simple checkup may be one of the healthiest things you do all year, and while I know it’s a pain, and sometimes near impossible, the risk of cervical cancer, along with a host of other preventable health problems, is the reason we urge patients to make the effort.