A Pap smear can detect cervical cancer and other abnormalities early on. In fact, it just may save your life. When did you have your last Pap smear? Read on to find out why it is so important.
A Pap test, or a Pap smear, can detect cervical cancer early on, potentially saving your life. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women between the ages of 21 and 65 screen for cervical cancer every three years. When were you last screened?
Cervical cancer and HPV
A Pap smear can often be run with a test to detect if you have human papillomavirus (HPV), a very common virus which can cause cervical cancer. Detecting HPV early can help to determine who needs further testing for pre-cancerous cells before they become something more life-threatening.
If you have been sexually active, you may be at risk for HPV. Even if you have had the HPV vaccine, you can still get an HPV infection and you should still get regular Pap smears. While the HPV vaccine certainly lowers your risk of certain kinds of cervical cancer, it doesn’t entirely prevent them.
The benefits of a Pap smear
The aim of a Pap smear is early detection and to catch abnormalities before they become dangerous. When cervical cancer is caught early on, there is a significantly high cure rate, and often you only require a minor procedure to remove it. The later cervical cancer is detected, though, the lower the survival rate. Once cervical cancer starts to spread throughout your body or even grow, treatment gets more invasive and you may need a hysterectomy and chemotherapy. Since cervical cancer develops slowly, there’s a much better chance of finding abnormal cells quickly when they’re mildly atypical and easier to treat.
Dr. Amy Bruner suggests that women book a Pap smear once you are 21, (or earlier if you are already sexually active – this is no longer correct, see below). After that, you should have a test done every three to five years up to the age of 65. If you have a history of abnormal results, have other medical conditions that may compromise your immune system, or you are HIV positive, you may require more regular testing.
What to expect when you have a Pap smear
(We will schedule your Pap smear to be done around 10 – 20 days after you start menstruation. We don’t do this) A Pap smear only takes a couple of minutes and is done right in our office.
During the procedure, we insert a speculum into your vagina so that we can collect a sample of cells from outside and inside your cervix. We use a cervical brush, inserted into the speculum, to collect the cell samples.
(We then place your samples on a glass slide to evaluate them – we don’t do it this way anymore). Most women report that a Pap smear, while somewhat awkward, is painless.
The next step
Once we have completed your Pap smear, we send the cells to a lab. The lab examines the cells and sends back the following results:
- Within normal limits
- Abnormality detected
If an abnormality is detected, don’t be alarmed. It doesn’t mean that you definitely have cervical cancer. In fact, cervical pre-cancers are far more common than their invasive counterparts. What’s more, just because you may have been exposed to HPV, doesn’t mean you will definitely get cancer.
If follow up care is recommended, we will carry out further tests to examine the tissue in your vulva, vagina, and cervix. We may also take a biopsy for a more conclusive diagnosis.
Time for your next Pap smear
While a Pap smear may sound intimidating, it can save your life by detecting and treating abnormalities before they turn into something more serious. When you visit Dr. Bruner, she will explain the procedure to you, answer any questions you may have, and talk you through your hesitations. Book a Pap smear today with Amy Bruner, MD and make sure abnormalities are detected early on. It may just save your life.
**Current ACOG recommendations:
How often should I have cervical cancer screening and which tests should I have?
How often you should have cervical cancer screening and which tests you should have depend on your age and health history:
- Women aged 21–29 years should have a Pap test alone every 3 years. HPV testing is not recommended.
- Women aged 30–65 years should have a Pap test and an HPV test (co-testing) every 5 years (preferred). It also is acceptable to have a Pap test alone every 3 years.
When should I stop having cervical cancer screening?
You should stop having cervical cancer screening after age 65 years if
- you do not have a history of moderate or severe abnormal cervical cells or cervical cancer, and
- you have had either three negative Pap test results in a row or two negative co-test results in a row within the past
- 10 years, with the most recent test performed within the past 5 years.
If I have had a hysterectomy, do I still need cervical cancer screening?
If you have had a hysterectomy, you still may need screening. The decision is based on whether your cervix was removed, why the hysterectomy was needed, and whether you have a history of moderate or severe cervical cell changes or cervical cancer. Even if your cervix is removed at the time of hysterectomy, cervical cells can still be present at the top of the vagina. If you have a history of cervical cancer or cervical cell changes, you should continue to have screening for 20 years after the time of your surgery.
Are there any women who should not follow routine cervical cancer screening guidelines?
Yes. Women who have a history of cervical cancer, are infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), have a weakened immune system, or who were exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth may require more frequent screening and should not follow these routine guidelines.
Having an HPV vaccination does not change screening recommendations. Women who have been vaccinated against HPV still need to follow the screening recommendations for their age group.