Cervical cancer is the easiest female cancer to prevent, yet many women don't regularly have a Pap smear. It's not the embarrassment of "scooting down" in those metal straps-these women have low incomes or are uninsured. Soon, however, they may be able to use a new home test to detect human papillomavirus (HPV), the main cause of this cancer.
Similar to the Pap performed by your gynecologist, for the at-home HPV test, women used a small brush to collect their own sample of vaginal and cervical cells, and then mailed the sample to the researchers. Ninety-seven percent of the participants said they had no problems doing this. The women then saw doctors for further testing since HPV tests cannot directly detect cervical cancer.
The test was not quite as accurate as the more advanced one used in doctors' offices, said study researcher Andrea Des Marais of the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. Twelve percent of the women were identified as having high-risk HPV. Part of this group included 3 percent who, after the professional testing, turned out to have precancerous lesions that could lead to cervical cancer.
While promising, further studies need to be completed, and even then, this study isn't meant to replace your yearly ob-gyn visits. "It would be a mistake if women getting regularly screened substitute this home test for a doctor's checkup," says Krishnansu Tewari, M.D., a professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of California, Irvine and surgeon at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center. However this test is beneficial to women who are uninsured, on low income, or don't have access to traditional screening methods for other reasons, he adds. "The 4,000 deaths a year in the United States are largely from women not getting Pap smears. That's why these home tests are such an important idea."
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For those who can have a Pap smear, consistency is key, Tewari says. If you are in your 20s, be tested at least every two years. Once you hit 30, if you get a negative on both the HPV and the Pap smear tests and don't have any high-risk factors for the cancer, then you can stretch out the time between tests to three to five years.
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