Many women dread their Pap smear appointments because of the discomfort and awkwardness it causes. However, the momentary discomfort you may feel can be potentially lifesaving. The Pap test can detect cells that are abnormal which may develop into cervical cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that cervical cancer is the easiest gynecologic cancer to prevent when women get regular screenings.
A Pap smear (or Pap test) looks for precancerous cell changes in the cervix that could develop into cervical cancer if they do not receive the appropriate treatment. A second test looks for the human papillomavirus (HPV) that causes the abnormal cell changes. Pap smears are one of the most reliable cancer screenings currently available.
Getting the HPV vaccine does not mean that you are able to stop getting Pap smears. The vaccine does protect women against certain types of cervical cancers, but not against all types of HPV and sexually transmitted diseases. The HPV vaccine is most effective after you have received all three doses.
With all of this in mind, what else should a woman know about Pap smears?
The Cervical Cancer Basics
In 2015, it was estimated that approximately 12,900 women would be diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 4,100 would die from cervical cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, this form of cancer tends to occur in midlife in women younger than 50. However, that doesn’t leave women at the age of 50 completely in the clear. Over 15 percent of cases occur in women over the age of 65.
Signs And Symptoms
If a woman is in the early stages of cervical cancer, she’ll likely have no symptoms. Symptoms do not begin to show until cancer has invaded nearby tissue. Once this happens, a woman may experience:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Weight loss
- Leg pain
Cervical cancer is not the only cause of these symptoms. An infection, such as cervicitis, can cause pain or bleeding. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should contact your provider or health care professional immediately. If these symptoms are indicating cervical cancer, ignoring them could lead to the cancer progressing to more advanced stages and lessening the chance for effective treatment.
Risk Factors of Cervical Cancer
There are several risk factors that increase a woman’s chance of developing cervical cancer. However, it is not certain that one particular risk factor is the cause of cancer. Cervical cancer risk factors include:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Chlamydia infection
- Being overweight
- Long-term use of oral contraceptives
- Use of an intrauterine device
- Family history
Preparing For a Pap Smear
When To Get Screened
Beginning at the age of 21, a woman should start to get her Pap tests regularly. If you are 30 or older, you may also choose to receive the HPV test along with your Pap smear. These tests can be performed at the same time by your doctor. It’s important to get tests between the ages of 21-65, even if you believe that you are too old to give birth or are no longer having sex. If your test returns normal, your chance of developing cervical cancer within the next few years is low.
Though you may not think so, a woman is never too old to get a Pap test. If you’re a woman over the age of 65 and sexually active, it’s important to talk to your doctor about the test. Although most women over 65 do not need Pap smears, it may be necessary if you have received treatment for pre-cancer or cancer in the past 20 years.
If you and your partner are sexually active, there are higher chances of developing HPV, the main culprit in most cervical cancer cases. Most sexually active women are exposed to this virus at some point in their life. Does your partner wear a condom? Condoms do not provide 100 percent protection against HPV, making Pap smears all the more important.
Getting the Pap Smear
Before getting a Pap smear, it’s important to make sure you don’t do certain things, such as:
- Having sex
- Using a tampon
- Using medicine or cream in your vagina
- Using spermicidal creams, foams or jellies
When making your appointment, try not to schedule your Pap smear during your period. The test can be done during a menstrual cycle, but it is best to avoid this if it is possible.
There are several things that happen during a Pap test. A doctor will insert a tool, called a speculum, into your vagina. The speculum helps hold the walls of your vagina apart, allowing the doctor to easily see your cervix. Once the speculum is in place, the doctor will take samples of cervical cells using a device called a spatula or a soft brush. This part of the exam typically does not hurt.
Pap test results can take as long as three weeks. If test results come back normal, you can wait up to three years before your next Pap smear. If a test indicates that something isn’t normal, you will be contacted by your doctor to schedule a follow-up. In many cases, immediate treatment can prevent cervical cancer from developing, which makes following up critical.
Don’t Skip Your Pap Smear
As a woman, you have health needs that are specific to you and it’s important not to ignore them. At UnityPoint Clinic, we want to make sure you are healthy through all seasons of life. That’s why we provide well woman exams. These exams allow providers to screen for health problems, answer questions you may have and to discuss your overall health. Scheduling a well woman exam is an easy and integral part of your health care routine.
Whether you go to your primary care provider or an OB/GYN for a Pap smear as part of your well woman exam, it’s important to make your appointment. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Schedule your well woman exam today!