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Mar 14, 2012 5:39 PM

New pap smear guidelines aim to reduce false positives

(NBC) - Maureen Russo was just 37-years-old when she lost her battle with cervical cancer.

"It was really hard to watch her slowly go downhill and leave her young kids behind," says Eileen Land, Maureen's sister.

Even though Maureen got annual pap smears to check for cervical cancer, doctors say her case was aggressive and an exception to the rule.

"It really does take years to see changes, and that it's highly unlikely to see changes from year to year when you've had a negative pap smear already," explains Dr. Ursula Matulonis, director of Gynecologic Oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

That's why the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has issued new guidelines extending the time between pap tests.

"We're recommending that women ages 21 to 65 undergo screening every three years, and not for shorter intervals," says Dr. Wanda Nicholson.

The guidelines also recommend women under age 21 and women over 65 with a clean pap smear history not be tested at all.

Women in their 30s, 40s and 50s have an option to wait every five years if they combine their pap test with an HPV test and both come back negative.

Dr. Nicholson helped create the new guidelines and says fewer screenings will lead to fewer false positives.

"The issue with false positive tests is it exposes women to further testing, and also there's the potential of overtreatment, so women may undergo a procedure or treatment for a lesion that wouldn't otherwise progress to cancer," she explains.

Experts say women with concerns should talk to their doctor about their individual risks and whether they could benefit from more, or less, testing.

Whether these new guidelines will change how insurance companies cover pap smears and HPV tests is not known.


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