More than 13,000 women are diagnosed yearly with cervical cancer in the United States. “Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers today with early detection and treatments for abnormal cell changes,” explains Avni Jain, MD, a family medicine physician with Adventist Medical Group. The best way to test for abnormal cervical cells is through a Pap smear. Dr. Jain walks us through what you can expect during a routine cervical screening, also known as a Pap smear.
What is a Pap Smear Test?
A Pap smear is a test that looks for cell changes within your cervix. If there are abnormal cells, there is a chance they could become cervical cancer if they are not treated. “Women who are 21 or older should be screened every three years,” says Dr. Jain. The test can be completed in most primary care offices or a gynecologist’s office.
Before You Go
Prior to your appointment, there are a few things recommended as preparation:
- Schedule the test for a time when you’re not on your menstrual period
- Forty-eight hours prior to the exam:
- Do not engage in sexual intercourse
- Do not use any vaginal douche products
- Do not use tampons, vaginal creams, or medications inserted into the vagina
During the Test
A Pap smear typically doesn’t take long. The nurse or doctor will come into the room, talk through the test with you and then leave the room while you undress and put on a gown. The doctor will then come back into the room to begin the test. Dr. Jain explains, “the doctor will use an instrument called a speculum to help them see the cervix. Once the speculum is in place, the doctor will insert a soft brush to gently scrape cells from your cervix to collect for testing.”
If you are over the age of 30, your doctor may recommend a screening for HPV in addition to or instead of the Pap test. The difference is, the cells will be tested for the high-risk HPV viruses that cause cervical cancer instead of testing for abnormal cells.
After the Test
The collected cells will be sent to an offsite laboratory where they will be tested. Some doctors may also request the lab to test for sexually transmitted infections in addition to the planned Pap test or HPV test. Your doctor will share the test results with you after they receive them.
My Test Results Came Back Abnormal
If your test results come back abnormal, your doctor will tell you the next course of action. The type of cells that are found, will help your doctor decide the next step. “Abnormal results typically mean you will have to come back for testing more often than every three years. It is also possible that you will have further testing to learn more about the abnormal cells,” adds Dr. Jain. If the results do come back abnormal, it’s important to remember that an abnormal cell result does not automatically mean you have cervical cancer. It is something that develops overtime and can be treated if the cells show potential to turn into cervical cancer.
Dr. Jain says, “it’s important for woman to talk their doctor about their history and have yearly check-ups. This test is recommended every three years but it’s still important to talk with your doctor every year to discuss any health changes and to stay up-to-date on any other screenings.”