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Less frequent cervical cancer screening advised for women

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OLATHE, Kan. -- For three years, guidelines have been consistent in saying that women of average risk for cervical cancer should not have pap testing every year. On Thursday, the American College of Physicians reiterated that, saying screening is still overused.

Dr. Gina Petelin of Olathe Women's Center knows it can be hard to break women's old habits when it comes to pap testing.

"We have patients that regardless of what guidelines we give them, they want to go ahead and re-screen," said Dr. Petelin, an obstetrician-gynecologist.

She says it's hard for doctors to say no when women are adamant about having the cervical cancer screening every year. But all the scientific evidence shows it's unnecessary. The ACP's new guidelines back up what other groups have said. Women under 21 should not be screened at all. Pap testing should be done every three years starting at 21. At age 30 and older, it can be a combination of pap and HPV testing every five years. Then after 65, no more testing.

The guidelines are based upon evidence that it takes a long time for cervical cells to become abnormal and turn cancerous.

"That doesn't happen overnight. It's a process," said Dr. Petelin.

The ACP says harms of too much screening include discomfort, unnecessary follow-up testing and treatment and higher costs.

With the new guidelines, it can be hard for women to remember when three years have past and they need a pap test. Sarah Maier, a patient and nurse practitioner, says she still sees her doctor every year.

"I would like to have a breast exam and a pelvic exam," Maier said.

Dr. Petelin and other ob/gyns still recommend the annual exam whether or not the pap test is done, although the ACP recently said the pelvic exam is also unnecessary for women with no symptoms.