January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and we’re committed to keeping you as healthy and informed as possible.
As women, many of us get pap tests as part of our annual well-women exams. But, do we know why?
The pap test is an important part of an annual well-woman visit for many women, because it can detect cervical cancer. Cervical cancer was once Nearly 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, but the disease is preventable with vaccination and appropriate screening.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States. However, in the past 40 years, the number of cases of cervical cancer and the number of deaths from cervical cancer have decreased significantly. This decline largely is the result of many women getting regular Pap tests, which can find cervical precancer before it turns into cancer.”
January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and at Women’s Integrated Health, we’re committed to keeping you as healthy and informed as possible.
What is a Pap Test
So, exactly what is a pap test? A gynecologist, a doctor who specializes in women’s reproductive organs, performs a pap test during a regular well-woman exam. The physician takes samples of cervical cells and tests them for any precancerous symptoms. Cervical cancer is usually caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), so it’s common to get both tests at once. The process includes:
- The patient lies on the exam table and places her feet in the stirrups.
- The health care provider gently places an instrument called a speculum into the vagina to open it slightly. This allows the provider to see inside the vagina and cervix.
- Cells are gently taken from the cervix area with a brush. This process shouldn’t hurt, but it may pinch and be uncomfortable.
- The cells are sealed in a liquid container.
- The sample of cells is sent to a lab for examination.
- The patient receives her results in a few weeks, and, if the results are abnormal, she is notified about a follow-up visit.
What if the Pap Test Results are Abnormal?
An abnormal pap test means that the lab detected abnormally shaped cervical cells in the sample that was sent for testing. Most of the abnormal cells are not cancerous but instead are the result of a cervical or vaginal infection. Abnormal pap tests are common.
If a pap test comes back abnormal, a woman’s provider will probably order additional testing, often HPV DNA testing. Some abnormal test results call for a colposcopy, a procedure to look closely at the cervix with a colopscope, a microscope-like device. If the coloposcopy brings back abnormal results, a biopsy is called for to determine presence of cervical cancer or precancerous conditions. If cervical cancer is detected during the biopsy, treatment options include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, depending on the stage of the cancer.
How to Prepare for a Pap Test
It is recommended to avoid having sex, using tampons and being on your period three to four days before having a pap test. Women on their periods should call their provider to see if the provider prefers she reschedule.
Who Needs a Pap Test?
At Women’s Integrated Healthcare, all women receive individualized care. Every woman is encouraged to get her annual well-woman exam, but our individualized care recommendations will determine the procedures and tests performed during these visits. In general, it’s recommended that women should start screening at 21 and have a pap test every three years between the ages of 21 and 29, usually without HPV screening. At age 30, it’s recommended to get a pap test every five years with HPV screening. If abnormal results are detected, it’s usually recommended that women rescreen in sixth months to a year, as needed. Women at a higher risk for cervical cancer should get tested every three years.
Who Doesn’t Need a Pap Test?
If a patient has had a complete hysterectomy, there is no reason to continue pap screening. However, it’s important to note that all women should continue their yearly well-woman visits.
Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of death for American women, so pap smear tests can be life saving. We encourage women to be proactive, take control of their health and schedule their well-woman visits to stay on top of their overall wellness.