Even though they're at a greater risk than their daughters, middle-aged and elderly women often think like teen-agers about cervical cancer. They figure it just won't happen to them.
But statistics show that kind of blind faith can be dangerous.
While only a small number of women in their 20s are diagnosed with cervical cancer, the rate increases dramatically for women over 45.Older women also are more likely to die of the cancer, which can almost always be cured if detected early.
"For some reason, after age50 or so, when they're not in their childbearing years anymore, women don't think they need regular (screenings)," said Dr. James L. Rivers Jr., an Annapolis gynecologist. "The tragedy of that is older women are much more likely to develop cervical cancer, and it can be prevented."
To encourage older women to get regular Pap smears, the test for cervical cancer, the county Health Department and Anne ArundelMedical Center have teamed up to offer free screenings.
Women ages 45 and older can receive free Pap tests at the hospital's new oncology center in Parole on May 17-18. Health Department nurses will showa video at senior centers early in May on the importance of regular screenings. Shuttle buses will take seniors to the oncology center.
County health officials hope the two-day program will prompt older women to start getting regular Pap tests. The Health Department has identified 8,500 women between ages 45 and 65 who could be at risk of developing cervical cancer. By receiving a Pap test every year or two, they can prevent invasive cancer because cell changes can be detected early and be treated.
In 1989, the last year for which statistics are available, six women in the county died of cervical cancer. Although the rate is low compared to other forms of cancer, county Health Officer Thomas C. Andrews called the deaths "six too many" becauseall probably could have been prevented.
"Even one death is not acceptable," he said. "With other cancers, it's tough. But we can deal with this one -- we can almost always cure it."
Since the late 1940s, when physicians began routinely giving Pap smears to obtain a sample of exfoliated cells, the cervical cancer rate across the nation has dropped by 70 percent. Pap smears show any abnormal cell growth, allowing physicians to give treatment before cancerous lesions develop.
The incidence rate among 20-year-olds only is about five or six cases per 100,000. But the rate rises to 13 per 100,000 among 30- to 45-year-olds and up to 50 per 100,000 among women over 45.
In recent years, reports of false negative test results have led many women to assume that Pap smears offer no guarantee against cervical cancer,Rivers said. The test has a 40 percent rate of showing a false negative result instead of a positive one, he said.
Compounding the problem of false negative rates, a number of labs were criticized in 1988 and 1989 for mishandling samples. Maryland has since imposed controls that limit the number of samples a lab technician can review each day, Rivers said.
Even if a woman gets a false negative result, she can prevent developing full-blown cancer by receiving annual or biannual Pap tests. Cervical cancer spreads so slowly that one false test result rarely proves fatal, said Andrews.
Rivers, who will be working with 15 other county gynecologists to give the free screenings in May, said he hopes that at least 250 women sign up. The hospital had a turnout of nearly 700 for a free prostate cancer screening at the oncology center last fall, said Carolyn Tonty, spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel Medical Center.
To register for the screening, call the oncology center at 224-5800.