Around 80 percent of women will contract human papillomavirus, or HPV, at some point in their life. While most infections are harmless, some strains of the virus are considered high risk because they can cause dangerous abnormal cell growth in the cervix.
"The importance of HPV is that some of the women who become infected can go on to develop invasive cervical cancer," said gynecologic pathology expert Dr. Tom Wright.
Abnormal cells can be a precursor to cervical cancer, and are usually detected using a pap smear. Federal guidelines recommend women begin getting regular pap smears starting at age 21. However, pap smears have their limitations.
Even with annual exams and pap screenings, Heather Banks says she was in her early 30s when diagnosed with cervical cancer. Treatment required chemotherapy, radiation and a radical hysterectomy.
Banks says an abnormal pap smear revealed she had high risk HPV a year before the cancer was diagnosed.
"I wish I would have asked my doctor, "Are we doing everything that we can to be as proactive as possible?" said Banks.
Now, doctors have another, more proactive option to screen for cervical cancer- the HPV Test. This test uses the same cells collected during a pap smear, and tests them for specific high risk strains of the HPV virus.
"This is really an important step forward because HPV is such a sensitive test and it identifies women before they actually get pre-cancer," said Wright.
The FDA recently approved the HPV test as a primary screening tool, meaning doctors can use the HPV test alone, or in conjunction with a pap smear.
Patients can request an HPV test at the same time as their pap smear. The test is covered by most insurance policies.
More information can be found here.
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