Marilyn Quayle, wife of Vice President Quayle, underwent surgery yesterday morning for an undisclosed gynecological ailment.
Her hospitalization followed a routine Pap test, which is most commonly used to detect cancer and pre-cancerous cells.
The vice president's press secretary, David C. Beckwith, would not disclose the precise nature of the surgery or in which hospital it was performed, but he said that Quayle will be able to resume her full schedule in four to six weeks and that "full and total recovery is expected."
"The vice president and Mrs. Quayle urge all women to have yearly Pap tests," Beckwith said. "With early diagnosis, complete cure and total recovery are possible. The Quayle family is thankful that this test was able to detect her disease at its earliest stages."
In a Pap test, a typically painless procedure that can be performed in seconds, cell samples are scraped from the cervix at the lower part of the uterus. Laboratory analysis of the cells provides an important early warning of possible abnormal cell growth or other potential trouble spots in a woman's reproductive tract.
"It is primarily intended to screen for cancer cells, but it does much more than that," said Allan B. Weingold, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at the George Washington University Medical Center. "It could pick up any one of 25 or 30 variations on the theme of infections or malignancies or pre-malignancies in the cervix."
Medical experts said that on the basis of the White House statement it was difficult to say which of the variety of cervical diseases Quayle had been treated for. However, based on the length of time of her expected convalescence and the expectation that her recovery would be complete, some doctors speculated that she is likely to have undergone a simple hysterectomy, a common procedure in which the uterus is removed.
A hysterectomy typically follows detection of either cancerous growth in the cervix or the beginnings of abnormalities in the uterus.
According to Washington gynecologist John Berryman, the White House's assurance that Quayle would make a full recovery within six weeks appears to rule out the possibility that her disease had progressed to a more serious, life-threatening stage. "At this stage, the disease is treatable and 100 percent curable," he said.
The Pap test, named for George Papanicolau, the doctor who invented it, was introduced nearly 50 years ago. It is considered one of the most valuable diagnostic tools in modern medicine and is largely credited with reducing by 70 percent deaths from cervical and uterine cancer in the United States.
Because cancerous cells in the reproductive tract move from inception to untreatable status in three to five years, it is generally recommended that women have a Pap test once a year to allow for medical intervention at the earliest and least dangerous point in the course of the disease.
An estimated 90 percent of the deaths of 10,000 American women who succumb to cervical cancer every year could have been prevented if the women had had regular Pap tests, according to public health officials.
Quayle, a lawyer who turns 41 next Sunday, has promoted increased awareness among women of the risks of cancer. This spring she recruited her husband and other national political leaders to run a 5-kilometer race to raise funds for breast cancer research.
In May, as a leader of the "Race for the Cure" campaign against breast cancer, she testified before a House subcommittee on health.
"I would encourage every member to do what I do, which is, whenever I am speaking, whether it is to the Chamber of Commerce or to a women's group, I stress the importance of screening and mammograms," she said at the time.
She said her mother, who died of breast cancer at age 56, might have been spared a painful death had the disease been detected earlier.