Testing for cervical cancer and for abnormal cell changes that could lead to cancer is done by your doctor with a Pap smear, also called a Pap test. It’s a routine procedure done at your gynecologists’ office in which cells are scraped from your cervix, the opening of your uterus, in order to test them for abnormal growth. The best gynecologist will always explain the entire procedure, so you know what to expect and why it is being done.
The Importance of Pap Smears
The Pap test is done routinely in order to try to detect changes in your cervical cells that could indicate that cancer might develop in the future. Finding abnormalities early can stop the development of cervical cancer. If cervical cancer is found early from the results of a Pap smear, you have a greater chance at prevention or a cure.
How a Pap Smear is Done
After your gynecologist has done a routine pelvic exam, they will take a tiny sample of cells from your cervix using a soft brush or flat scraping device. You may feel some pressure, but it is usually not painful. The procedure typically takes ten minutes or less. The cells are sent to a lab for review.
Do You Need to Prepare for Your Pap Test?
In general, you will not need to do anything special to prepare for your Pap smear. However, your gynecologist may ask you to avoid several activities in order to enhance the effectiveness of your test. For example, you may be asked to avoid:
- Sexual intercourse
- Using chemicals or solutions to clean the vagina or using vaginal cleaning products of any kind.
Research has found that these activities can conceivably wash away, remove, or obscure the abnormal cells that a Pap smear is designed to identify. Usually, patients are asked to avoid these activities for up to two days before their exam.
Likewise, many patients are asked to avoid scheduling their Pap smear during menstruation whenever possible.
Pap Smear Results
The results of your Pap smear should be available within a few days. If they are negative, that means that no abnormalities have been detected. Positive results don’t necessarily mean you have cancer.
Slight abnormalities could indicate minor cell changes that could go away on their own, or an inflammation. If this happens, your gynecologist will probably recommend a repeat Pap smear in a few months.
Abnormal Cells After a Repeat Pap Smear
If the slight abnormalities haven’t cleared up after the repeat test, further testing may be recommended. Your gynecologist may do a colposcopy, which involves looking at the cervix under a microscope. A biopsy may also be done, which involves removing a small amount of tissue from the cervix. The results of these tests will determine the doctor’s recommendation for treatment.
How Often Pap Smears Need to Be Done
Each woman is different, and your doctor will discuss with you how often you should have this test. As a general guideline, a Pap smear is typically done every two years starting at age 21. By age 30, if you have had three consecutive normal Pap tests and you don’t have a weakened immune system or health condition, the frequency may be decreased to every three years. You may also be able to decrease the Pap test to every five years if it is done along with a test for Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Talk to your doctor to find out what is right for you.
If you exhibit some increased risk factors, the frequency of your recommended Pap Smears may be increased. Some of those risk factors include:
- Any previous detection of precancerous cells or cervical cancer.
- If you use tobacco products; smokers, in particular, may require more frequent Pap smears.
- Any compromise to your immune system, either from immunosuppressant medications (such as for an organ transplant) or due to illness.
- Previous HIV infection.
- Any reported exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before you were born.
If you exhibit any of these risk factors, it’s recommended that you speak with your OBGYN and discuss the possibility of increasing the frequency of your Pap Smears.
Pap smears are generally recommended for women beginning at age 21. Women who are not sexually active or who have not had sexual intercourse are usually at lower risk of developing cervical cancer–but that risk is not nil. It’s usually recommended, therefore, that even women who are not sexually active continue to undergo Pap tests.
When Can You Stop Receiving Pap Smears?
There are some individuals for whom Pap smears no longer provide a means of protection. As a result, those individuals are usually not included in typical Pap smear frequency recommendations. In general, you can usually stop receiving Pap smears if:
- By the age of 65, if you have always had normal results, you may be able to discontinue having this test. By this age, the risk of cervical cancer is very low. This is an individual decision that should be made between you and your gynecologist.
- You have undergone a hysterectomy for non-cancer related reasons. In general, a complete hysterectomy will include the cervix. If you have undergone a hysterectomy for a condition such as uterine fibroids, you can likely stop undergoing a Pap smear. However, if you underwent a hysterectomy for cancer-related reasons, your OBGYN may still recommend regular Pap tests.
You can talk to your OBGYN about the best way to proceed, given your personal health and medical history.
Why the Pap Test is Repeated So Often
The Pap test has been more successful than any other test in preventing cervical cancer, but it is a test that relies on the examination of results by the human eye. For this reason, abnormalities could be missed, so you should have the test as often as recommended.
Pap smears are very important because regular Pap tests can detect cervical cancer early or prevent it altogether. When detected, this is one of the most treatable forms of cancer. Have a Pap smear done as often as recommended by your doctor and help your doctor to keep you healthy.