If you haven’t had a Pap test (AKA Pap smear) done recently, consider Cervical Health Awareness Month a reminder to put it on the calendar. Though the test itself can be slightly uncomfortable, it can actually save your life. Globally cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer in women. The number of deaths related to cervical cancer has decreased dramatically over the last four decades due in large part to routine Pap tests.
A Pap test looks at the scraping of cells from the cervix. If they look abnormal they’re flagged for further examination, explains Dr. Jennifer Lesko. Pap tests can detect the earliest signs of cervical cancer. “It’s extremely uncommon to present with late-stage cervical cancer if you’ve been screened regularly,” she says.
Pap Test Guidelines
The current U.S. guidelines indicate that women starting at 21 years of age have a regular Pap test every two years. Women who are 30 years or older and have had three consecutive normal screenings can talk to their doctor about spacing out the tests.
You may need to be screened more often if:
- You have a weakened immune system (this can be attributed to steroid use, organ transplantation or exposure to chemotherapy agents)
- You are HIV positive; women who contract HIV are also at higher risk for developing cervical cancer and other cervical abnormalities
How to Prepare For Your Pap
There are some things medical experts suggest you do to prepare for your Pap test:
- Tell your doctor about any medications you’re taking (some birth control pills may affect the accuracy of the test)
- Tell your doctor if you think you might be pregnant or if you’ve had an abnormal Pap test before
- Don’t douche, have sex, take a bath or use tampons 24 hours before the test
What If Your Pap Test Is Abnormal?
An abnormal Pap test means that cell changes were found in your cervix. In some cases these abnormal cells may indicate cervical cancer or pre-cancer, but an abnormal pap doesn’t necessarily mean you have cervical cancer. You should always discuss your results with a physician if you have questions.
Abnormal Pap tests are often indicative of the presence of the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a major cause of cervical cancer and it’s the most common sexually transmitted infection. The changes caused by HPV can range from minor (the cells will go back to normal on their own over time) to serious (the cells can turn into cancer if not removed).
It’s important to realize that the only cancer Pap tests screen for is cervical cancer. Ovarian, vaginal, vulval and uterine cancer cannot be detected through this testing. Fortunately, there are several studies underway examining the effectiveness of treatments that attack precancerous cells. There are some promising results in targeting precancerous cells before they develop into cervical cancers.
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