As January comes to an end, we are still talking about Cervical Cancer, lots adult women are scared to go ahead with the Pap test. What is it, and why is it important?
well… here we go! The Pap test, or Pap smear, is so named in honor of its inventor, a Greek doctor called George (Georgios) Nicholas Papanicolaou (1883–1962).
His work focused on examining smears of cervical tissue — the cervix is the lower, narrow part of a woman’s uterus — to screen for potential warning signs related to gynecological health.
What is the Pap test for?
Through the Pap smear, cells are collected from a woman’s cervix for analysis. These are screened for any unusual results, as mutations might indicate the presence of the Human PapillomaVirus (HPV), which is a major risk factor for the development of cervical cancer.
HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection, and it can be contracted via sexual contact (vaginal, oral, or anal) with someone who is already infected.
In many cases, HPV will be eliminated naturally by the body’s immune system within 1 or 2 years from infection, without causing any further health complications. In some cases, however, it can linger in the body, causing genital warts that can, in turn, lead to cervical cancer.
The Pap test is used to detect any changes that may occur at cellular level, and to determine whether or not they are indicative of precancerous lesions, which have a high probability of developing into cancerous tissue.
There are several types of treatment and intervention available for cervical cancer, but for these to be most effective, it is crucial to spot it as early as possible. This is why getting smear tests as advised is so important.
A Pap test can detect cells in their precancerous stage, which can allow the implementation of a preventive treatment. In addition to detecting precancerous lesions, the test can also help to spot any other issues that may appear in the cervical or vaginal area, such as infections.
How is a Pap test performed?
The Pap test is performed with the help of a special medical tool called a “speculum” which allows the practitioner to open up the vaginal canal, so that the cervix can be seen. A sample of cells is then collected from the cervix with a brush or a special tool called a “scraper.”
This sample-taking procedure is what women are usually most afraid of or embarrassed about. This is a natural reaction, given that a person you don’t know gets to insert a cold and uncomfortable instrument into your vagina and then scrape away at your cervix.
As hair-raising as that might sound, most accounts of undergoing the Pap smear speak of some discomfort, but definitely nothing like the horrors that some of us may imagine.
A slight discomfort that’s definitely worth it
We asked some of our female colleagues about their experiences on the ob-gyn exam table, the stories they shared spoke of bearing a little discomfort for a couple of minutes, and reaping much larger health benefits in the long run. One colleague said:
“I’ve been having Pap tests since my early 20s (by request), and I’m so glad I did. I had some abnormal cells that had to be removed. I fear that if I hadn’t had the test early, these cells could have become cancerous. In terms of discomfort, I don’t think it’s as uncomfortable as some women perceive it to be, and it’s over so quickly.”
Another colleague — while admitting that she “can’t say that [she] look[s] forward to having a Pap test” — certainly thought that the benefits “outweigh the short period of discomfort that they cause,” as the test can identify a problem even when you don’t experience any symptoms.
“It all boils down to staying as relaxed as possible, getting in a comfortable position, and taking a few deep breaths,” she said.
How often should I get a Pap smear?
Following current guidelines, women should start getting tested from the age of 21. Up until 2012, physicians used to recommend that women undergo smear tests once per year, but the current recommendations suggest a longer time gap between Pap tests.
After the age of 65, Pap tests should be done only if there are unusual gynecological symptoms and the physician calls for further investigations.