A Pap smear is essential for women of all ages.
When was the last time you saw your doctor for a checkup, and yes, I mean a pap smear and pelvic exam? If you can’t remember – then it’s time to make an appointment. Routine visits to your gynecologist are essential to your health as a woman. Starting at age 21 – or when you become sexually active – you should begin getting pelvic examinations, which include a pap smear, every year. A pap smear is a simple procedure done in your doctor’s office. It is considered the best tool to detect precancerous conditions and tumors that could lead to cervical cancer.
Beginning in your twenties, you should have an appointment every year. After age 30 – if you have had three normal Pap smears in a row – you can go once every three years. Women aged 40-44 have the highest rate of cervical cancer so a routine pap smear is essential in your forties. And it is important for women to continue having a pap smear even past age 70. 1 in 10 cases of cervical cancer are found in women aged 72 or older.
If you are HIV positive, have a weakened immune system from chemotherapy or an organ transplant, have a history of chronic steroid use, or a history of diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure before birth (a hormone often given from 1938-1971 thought to prevent miscarriage) – your doctor will recommend more frequent pap smear screening.
What is a pap smear and what does it mean to me?
A pap smear is an office procedure given during a pelvic exam. You will lay on the exam table with your feet in stirrups. Your doctor will use a speculum – a plastic, tong-like device – to widen the opening of the vagina so the cervix can be better examined. Your doctor will then use a plastic spatula, brush, and/or cotton swab to collect cells from the cervix. You might feel slight discomfort, but just for a moment. The cells are then placed in a liquid solution and sent to a lab for testing.
Once at the lab, your cells will be examined and classified as normal or abnormal. If your test comes back normal you will schedule your next routine checkup and pap smear in 1 – 3 years. An abnormal pap smear result can be caused by a number of things – it does not necessarily mean you have cancer. It could be caused by an infection (like a yeast infection), a vaginal or cervical inflammation due to diaphragm use or sexual intercourse, or even changes in the menstrual cycle.
The purpose of a pap smear is to look for changes in the cells of the cervix that detect cervical cancer or conditions that may develop into cancer. It looks for atypical or abnormal cells. It can also detect those associated with the human papilloma virus HPV – a sexually transmitted microorganism that has been linked to cervical cancer.
If a pap smear is abnormal, your doctor will recommend a follow up in a few months. If an infection affected your results, you will be treated for the infection then have your follow up pap smear. If there are still abnormal cells found, the next step is a colposcopy – an exam using a special type of microscope that can further examine the cervix.
Precancerous changes in the cervix usually take years to develop into cervical cancer. Regular pap smears can find cancer early – when it is easiest to treat and cure. Pap smears can also detect about 50% of uterine cancers.
Cancer typically does not cause early symptoms. When cancer is in the cervix there could be abnormal bleeding – often occurring between periods, after sex, or after douching. Another possible symptom is abnormal vaginal discharge. Pain is not an early warning sign of cancer. See your doctor is you have any odd symptoms. But remember, these are not sure signs of cancer.
A Pap smear is important – especially if you have any of these risk factors for developing cervical cancer.
· Having more than five sexual partners
· First intercourse before age 17
· History of HPV
· Over age 65 and never had a pap smear – there is an increased risk of developing cervical cancer with increased age
· DES exposure
If you have a cervix, get it checked. Start young and continue visiting your gynecologist throughout your life. Call Dr. Hessel today. Encourage your friends, co-workers, sisters, mothers, daughters, aunts, and grandmothers to keep up with their pap smear and check ups. Make time for yourself and for your good health – Dr. Hessel is an experienced, educated gynecologist that will help you stay in your best shape and health.