How a Pap smear works
The American Cancer Society estimates that about 14,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer this year, and about 4,300 women will die from the cancer. Those are startling numbers — but thanks to widespread use of the Pap smear (or Pap test), the number of cervical cancer deaths has actually declined substantially.
A Pap smear works by collecting cell material from your cervix, the opening of your uterus. To collect the cell sample, the doctor inserts a long swab through your vagina. The swab is brushed against the cervix, collecting just the most superficial layer of cells. The swabbing takes just a few moments, no incisions are made, and the test itself is painless.
Once the sample is collected, the doctor inserts the swab into a special vial containing a fluid designed to trap the cells and preserve them. Then, the sample is viewed under a microscope. The doctor or pathologist views the cells and evaluates them very carefully, looking for any abnormal changes that could indicate cancer in its early stages. The test can also identify precancerous changes that occur even before cancer has a chance to develop.
The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women between the ages of 21 and 65 have a pap smear once every three years (yes, even if you’re in menopause). Some women with risk factors for cervical cancer might need to be tested more often. If you’re 65 and you’ve had three consecutive normal Pap tests, you may be able to stop having additional tests, but that’s something you and your doctor can decide.
What to do if your results are abnormal
While an abnormal result can indicate cancer, it can also occur if you have an infection, if you have certain types of sexually transmitted diseases, or if inflammation is present. If your result is abnormal (or positive), your doctor will probably order additional testing, which might include another Pap test or a special exam called a colposcopy. In this exam, the doctor uses a magnifying scope to view your cervix and to take additional tissue samples near the area where the abnormal cells were found.
Even though a positive test doesn’t “automatically” mean you have cancer, the idea of having a test come back positive can be nerve-wracking. It’s important, though, not to let your worry prevent you from having regular Pap smears along with routine pelvic exams. The Pap test and exam are simple steps you can take that can dramatically reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer. Although you may not look forward to your exam, it’s still an essential part of maintaining optimal health — at every age.
Schedule your Pap smear today
At Dekalb Women’s Specialists, we offer Pap smears on their own or as part of our well-woman exams. If it’s been three or more years since your last Pap smear, call us at 404-508-2000 or use our online form to schedule an office visit at one of our three locations.