Oh the dreaded Pap test. Though it's quick, simple and safe, it can make any woman feel pretty awkward or uncomfortable. So, why do doctors put us females through it!?
The simple answer is that pap tests are sort of like going to the dentist for a filling or to the doctor's office for a vaccine — it's unpleasant at the time, but the long-term benefits make it worth the sacrifice. Here's why:
Pap tests (short for Papanicolaou - the name of doctor who invented the test) are done to prevent cervical cancer.
Did You Know?
Cervical cancer is the third most common cancer in women and affects the lower part of the uterus, called the cervix. One of the terrible things about this cancer is that it does not cause any major symptoms until it has spread to other parts of the body. Once diagnosed, about 38% of women will die because of the cancer.
However, since the development of pap tests, the number of cervical cancer cases has dropped by 60-90% and the lives of thousands of women world-wide have been saved by this simple test!
Cervical cancer — Risk factors
The unique thing about cervical cancer is that the major risk factor for this disease is having had sexual intercourse. Other risk factors include early age of first sexual encounter, multiple sexual partners or a promiscuous partner, a history of sexually transmitted diseases and cigarette smoking.
So what is the connection between sex and cervical cancer? The answer: human Papillomavirus (HPV) - the most common sexually transmitted infection. 75% of people have been infected at some point in their life and condoms are not very good at preventing infection. Most infections go away on their own and cause no problems, but in some women, they can lead to abnormalities.
Did You Know?
There are over 60 different types of HPV The high risk types are called HPV 16 and HPV 18. When these viruses infect a cervical cell, they take their viral DNA and add it to the strand of human DNA present in the cell. This disrupts the proper functioning of the cell, so that it refuses to die when it normally should and instead keeps on multiplying, eventually forming a cancer.
Infected cells look different than other cells, even before they become cancerous and that's why the Pap test is so successful; it detects abnormal cells early, so that something can be done before the cancer develops.
When should you start getting a Pap test?
Cervical cancer is caused by a sexually transmitted infection so all females should start having Pap tests done shortly after becoming sexually active and then every year until the age of 30. Women over thirty can have the test done every 2 to 3 years after having had 2 or 3 normal results. A doctor may recommend tests more often if you have many sexual partners, previous positive tests or multiple risk factors.
What to expect when you get a Pap test
Pap tests are done in a doctor's office with the patient lying on her back with her knees bent. The doctor will request that the patient drop both her knees to the side. Then, a speculum (a metal or plastic instrument) is inserted into the vagina and opened slightly, in order for the cervix to be seen. This is often the most uncomfortable part of the exam.
Once the cervix is seen, a sample of cells from the outside of the cervix is obtained by gently scrapping them off with a special brush, which is usually painless. The cells are preserved in a special liquid and sent to a lab. The entire procedure only takes a couple of minutes and a patient usually will get results in less than a week.
How else can I prevent cervical cancer?
Other than getting the recommended Pap tests, teens can help to prevent cervical cancer by choosing to delay sexual intercourse until an older age, choose sexual partners carefully, limiting the number of partners and always using condoms. Avoiding smoking is also very important.
Recently, a vaccine against HPV 16 and 18 has been introduced that may revolutionize the prevention of cervical cancer. For more information on the HPV vaccine, visit the CRAM Article on it here.
4 Women on Paps
MedLine Plus on Cervical Cancer
Dr. Barra obtained her medical degree at the University of Western Ontario and is currently completing her internal medicine residency in London, Ontario. She was born and raised in Toronto and loves gelato.