This week, British model Georgia May Jagger and musician Rita Ora posted Instagrams featuring what looked liked honest makeup mistakes, but were actually part of a new campaign from U.K.-based Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, called #SmearForSmear. The campaign aims to encourage regular pap smears for women and coincides with January being Cervical Cancer Awareness month. Like the infamous Ice Bucket Challenge, those participating in #SmearForSmear post an image and then nominate others to participate. Almost all cervical cancer is caused by HPV, and while most HPV infections don't lead to any serious health problems, high-risk types of HPV can cause abnormal cell changes that eventually lead to cancer. For a helpful HPV overview, turn to this guide.
Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States. However, the CDC reports that in the past 40 years, the number of cases and the number of deaths have decreased significantly, largely due to regular Pap tests. Yet, some women are still skipping their Pap smears. As many as eight million U.S. women who should be screened for cervical cancer haven’t had a screening in the past five years. NBC reports that "rates were also higher among minorities, while women living in the South were the most likely to have cervical cancer, with a rate of 8.5 cases per 100,000 women." The number of women getting their regular Pap tests has significantly decreased in the U.K., which is where the #SmearForSmear campaign originated. Harper’s Bazaar reports that “nearly one-third of U.K. women between the ages of 25 and 29 are skipping their Pap smears, while the number of women in that age group diagnosed with the disease rose 4.8% in the past year alone.”
It’s important to note, however, that "regular" Pap tests no longer mean annual visits for most women — studies have shown that one screening every three years is far more effective. The American Cancer Society explains, “annual Pap tests offer very little, if any, benefit compared to screening every three years...False positives are very common with cervical cancer screening, and more frequent screening leads to more frequent need for follow-up tests, which can be invasive and have unwanted side effects, including problems related to future pregnancies and delivery, as well as increased anxiety.” With the new guidelines, the American Cancer Society recommends against annual screenings (although many doctors still do them).
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit your doctor annually, though. The guidelines also advise that, “women can and should still see their doctors more often than every three or five years — just not for a Pap test. Doctor visits should be scheduled for general wellness, with Pap tests and HPV tests given according to guidelines.”
David Fishman, MD, an expert on women’s cancers at Mount Sinai Hospital, told NBC, “The Pap smear, in my opinion, is the most powerful tool in the history of medicine to detect precancerous change, such that no woman should ever die from cervical cancer.”
You can track the #SmearForSmear campaign and share your own selfie with the hashtag. And, of course, make sure you get a regular Pap smear.