Surprisingly, the cervical cancer death rate is greater among women aged >65 years than among younger women1,2 (FIGURE). Paradoxically, most of our screening programs focus on women <65 years of age. A nationwide study from Denmark estimated that the cervical cancer death rate per 100,000 women at ages 40 to 44 and 65 to 69 was 3.8 and 9.0, respectively.1 In other words, the cervical cancer death rate at age 65 to 69 years was 2.36 times higher than at age 40 to 44 years.1
A study from the United States estimated that the cervical cancer death rate per 100,000 white women at ages 40 to 44 and 65 to 69 was 3.3 and 8.6, respectively,2 very similar to the findings from Denmark. The same US study estimated that the cervical cancer death rate per 100,000 black women at ages 40 to 44 and 65 to 69 was 5.3 and 23.8, highlighting the fact that, in the United States, cervical cancer disease burden is disproportionately greater among black than among white women.2 In addition, the cervical cancer death rate among black women at age 65 to 69 was 4.49 times higher than at age 40 to 44 years.2
Given the high death rate from cervical cancer in women >65 years of age, it is paradoxical that most professional society guidelines recommend discontinuing cervical cancer screening at 65 years of age, if previous cervical cancer screening is normal.3,4 Is the problem due to an inability to implement the current guidelines? Or is the problem that the guidelines are not optimally designed to reduce cervical cancer risk in women >65 years of age?
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommend against cervical cancer screening in women >65 years of age who have had adequate prior screening and are not otherwise at high risk for cervical cancer. However, ACOG and the USPSTF caution that there are many groups of women that may benefit from continued screening after 65 years of age, including women with HIV infection, a compromised immune system, or previous high-grade precancerous lesion or cervicalcancer; women with limited access to care; women from racial/ethnic minority groups; and migrant women.4 Many clinicians remember the guidance, “discontinue cervical cancer screening at 65 years” but do not recall all the clinical factors that might warrant continued screening past age 65. Of special concern is that black,2 Hispanic,5 and migrant women6 are at much higher risk for invasive cervical cancer than white or US-born women.
The optimal implementation of the ACOG and USPSTF guidelines are undermined by a fractured health care system, where key pieces of information may be unavailable to the clinician tasked with making a decision about discontinuing cervical cancer screening. Imagine the case in which a 65-year-old woman pre‑sents to her primary care physician for cervical cancer screening. The clinician performs a cervical cytology test and obtains a report of “no intraepithelial lesion or malignancy.” The clinician then recommends that the patient discontinue cervical cancer screening. Unbeknownst to the clinician, the patient had a positive HPV 16/18/45 test within the past 10 years in another health system. In this case, it would be inappropriate to terminate the patient from cervical cancer screening.
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