Data from a University of Maryland School of Medicine survey were just released showing that nearly four out of ten lesbians do not get regular pap smears. Pap smears screen for cervical cancer, among other things. Cervical cancer is usually caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV can be spread by skin-to-skin contact, so lesbians are just as much at risk for getting HPV as bisexual or heterosexual women. Screening is important to detect precancerous changes and cancer in their earliest stages so that treatment can be done when it’s most effective, preventing deaths.
Why do so few lesbians get their screenings? The primary reasons cited in the survey were: a) not having a physician referral, and b) not having a physician. Together, these two reasons account for 34.8% of study participants. We already know that lack of access to care is a big problem in gender and sexual minority communities. This just helps to confirm it. The survey authors note that lesbians who were open with their physicians about their sexual orientation were more likely to be screened than those who weren’t open.
There has been a recent change to pap smear recommendations. Pap smears are no longer recommended every year for most people. Screening starts at 3 years after first sexual activity, or age 21, whichever is first. From age 21-30, screen every 3 years, then from age 30-65, screen and do an HPV test every 5 years. After 65, no screening is recommended. If a pap smear is abnormal, screenings become more frequent. I should also note that these guidelines apply to everyone with a cervix, regardless of gender identity.
I, personally, think it’s highly advisable for everyone to know their HPV status and get vaccinated if possible, in addition to regular pap smears. HPV vaccines are not a replacement for pap smears because they don’t vaccinate for all HPV strains which cause cervical cancer. However, vaccines do protect against some.
EDIT (10/21/2012): I should also note that during a pap smear, a physician can do other screenings. This includes gonorrhea/chlamydia screening, looking for signs of other STDs or vaginal cancer, and checking the ovaries for lumps.