In 1913, a veteran of Greece’s medical corps arrived with his wife in New York City. Neither of these immigrants spoke English, and between them they had only $250 to start their new life. Despite having a medical degree, George Papanicolaou had to take any job that was available—so his employment included stints as a newspaper clerk and violinist.
It wasn’t until 1914 that he gained employment in his field, working in the Anatomy Department at Cornell University’s Medical College and New York University’s Pathology Department. From there, George Papanicolaou’s research and innovation created the cervical cancer screening method that bears his name: the Pap smear.
Before the Pap smear, cervical cancer was “one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women,” according to the American Cancer Society. Because the Pap test detects cervical changes before cancer develops, doctors can treat it early, when it’s easier to cure.
The introduction of the Pap test reduced cervical cancer deaths by 70 percent over the last 50 years. While cervical cancer was previously the number one cancer killer of women, early screening has made it 13th, according to American Cancer Society information.
Who was Dr. George Papanicolaou?
Dr. Papanicolaou was born in 1883 on the island of Euboea, Greece, where he was one of four children. He attended the University of Athens and later traveled to Germany to study at the University of Munich, where he received a PhD. He graduated from medical school in 1904, where he received top honors, according to information from the U.S. Library of Medicine.
Throughout his career, he worked as an assistant surgeon in the military, a physician who treated leprosy patients, and finally, his positions at Cornell University and New York University. His wife worked with him as a technician.
In 1928, he discovered that he was able to discern differences between normal and malignant cervical cells by viewing samples under a microscope. However, it was not until 1943, when his book on the procedure was published. The test was inexpensive, simple and it soon became the standard test in screening for cervical cancer. The process has been changed very little since its initial conception and still remains the most widespread screening tool for cervical cancer.
Why are Pap smears important?
It’s tempting to skip an annual exam because you don’t have time and your schedule is crammed to the limit. However, skipping your Pap smear can have devastating consequences.
According to American Cancer Society’s estimates, in 2018, 4,170 women will die from cervical cancer while another 13,240 will be diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer. Invasive cervical cancer occurs when the cancer is starting to spread to other areas of the body.
As with many other cancers, early detection is vital. When detected early, the five-year survival rate is 92 percent.
Are you at risk for cervical cancer?
Following are some factors that place you at a higher risk of getting cervical cancer:
• A human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
• A weakened immune system
• A poor diet that is low in fruits and vegetables
• A family history of cervical cancer
• Prolonged birth control use or use of an IUD
• Being overweight or obese
• A chlamydia infection