Does your heart sink to the moment you get the appointment reminder for the dreaded pap smear test?
Yep mine too.
Well, we’re not the only ones who dread them. Apparently, 8 million suitable women in the USA are overdue for a pap smear.
The trouble is pap smears are life-saving. More importantly, they are lifesaving for moms.
Cervical cancer mainly affects women of child-bearing age. That means most women who are diagnosed have children. Or need a hysterectomy before they can have children.
I developed this guide to be your pap smear sergeant cheerleader. The aim is to encourage you to go and get your vag checked and look after your health.
It’s an easy to read guide, and you need to share it with your female friends. So go ahead and do that now with those little share buttons up above.
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Pap Smear Test Guide
What is a pap smear?
You know pap smears are important, but do you know why?
The Pap smear is another name for the Papanicolaou Test after the guy who invented it. It’s a cervical screening test to detect abnormal cells.
Your doctor will offer further investigation if any unhealthy cells are detected.
A Pap smear does not test for cancer, it checks for cells that can lead to cancer.
Do I need a Pap Smear?
In the USA every year, 13000 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed. Around 35% of these women will die from the disease.
The survival rate for cervical cancer is 91% if detected early with a pap smear. Only 41% of these cases are identified early.
If you are over 21 or sexual active before this age, you need a pap smear.
How often do I need a pap smear?
Your gynecologist will invite you for a yearly pelvic exam. You should only be offered a pap smear if you are:
- currently pregnant
- Age 18-21 (sexually active) – Every 3 years
- Age 21- 29 – Every 3 years
- Age 30-65 – Every 3- 5 years
You will not be offered a pap smear if you are:
- Under 21 and not sexually active
- over 65 with 3 previous clear screens
- had a hysterectomy
If you’ve had previous abnormal smear results, your smear frequency increases.
Prepare for Pap smear
At least 2 days before your smear test try to avoid:
- Having intercourse
- Using vaginal medications
- Using lubricants
You want to avoid putting anything inside the vagina which can interfere with your cervix. This will ensure your results are as accurate as possible.
It’s also best to avoid scheduling your Pap smear around the time you are bleeding in your menstrual cycle. Your doctor can still perform the test, however, the results may not be accurate.
Pap smear Procedure – What to Expect
Even if you’ve been for a pap smear before, you might not know what goes on down there.
When you go into the doctor’s office, you undress from the waist down and use a gown for modesty.
You’ll then get onto the examination table and put your legs into the stirrups.
Your doctor will then insert a beak-like speculum into your vagina. This device helps to hold the vagina open so your doctor can see your cervix. This part can be quite uncomfortable.
Once they find your cervix, they will either use a spatula or a small brush to collect cells from your cervix. This part lasts about 15-20 seconds.
The screen is complete, and you can get on your merry way. A container of your cells is sent to a testing lab.
For a day or so after your screen, you may feel slightly crampy or have a light vaginal bleed. Contact your doctor if any pain or bleeding continues for longer.
Pap smear Results
You should get the results of your pap smear in 1-3 weeks after the test.
The results will be either normal or abnormal.
Normal Pap Smear results
A negative or normal result means the sample did not show any abnormal cells. You don’t need to do anything and attend your next scheduled pap smear.
Abnormal Pap smear Results
An abnormal result is not a positive for cancer. It means you need further investigations on your cervix.
A standard investigation is a colposcopy. This procedure is similar to a pap smear. Your doctor will use a microscope and light to look closely at your cervix. They may even ask to take a small tissue sample for further investigation.
If these cells are found to be pre-cancerous, you can have procedures to remove them.
- LLETZ – A heated loop wire removes the cells from your cervix. This procedure will be done as a day case with a local anesthetic.
- Biopsy – The cells are cut away from your cervix. You will be admitted for this procedure as it will be done under general anesthetic.
Pap Smear Accuracy
Technology has dramatically improved the accuracy of Pap smear results. Two types of error can happen with the outcome of your smear.
That means that normal results not always correct. You can have abnormal cells that go undetected, given you a wrong result. This is a false negative error.
This can happen if:
- The abnormal cells are in very early stages
- The sample size is too small
- Substances in the vagina obscuring abnormal cells (e.g. sperm, blood, medicine lubricants)
Don’t panic. Abnormal cells usually take 10-15 years to develop into invasive cervical cancer. Your next smear should pick up these cells. That’s why it’s so important to attend your pap smears regularly.
This error is when you informed you have abnormal cells, but there are none. False positives can be quite stressful as you need to go for further, yet unnecessary testing.
7 Tips to Avoid Pap smear pain
You may be avoiding a pap smear because of how uncomfortable they are. Check out these tips to help make the procedure a little more comfortable for your next visit.
Take some Tylenol or ibuprofen before the procedure. Painkillers will help with any cramping you may have afterward.
2. Go Pee
Always empty your bladder before you go into the doctor’s office. A full bladder will automatically make you feel uncomfortable. When they insert the speculum, it can irritate your bladder more and cause unnecessary pain.
3. Speculum size
Ask your doctor if it’s possible to have a smaller speculum. This change in size can be helpful if you have a short vagina or haven’t delivered a baby vaginally. The shorter length can make the whole procedure more comfortable.
4. Distract yourself
Wiggle your toes, count back from 100 or sing a song in your head. Distraction is a great way to help you take your mind off any discomfort.
Talk to your doctor. Let them know if you are incredibly nervous. They may have some tips to make the procedure more comfortable for you. If your doctor isn’t great with technique or communication, then consider switching to a doctor who is.
Don’t get hung up on trivial things like your non-matching socks, hairy legs or hiding your bra (yes we all do it!). Remember you are probably the tenth vagina your doctor has seen this week. Stressing makes you tense causing the speculum to hurt more when it goes in.
7. Bear down
A great tip is to bear down a little bit as the speculum goes in. The sensation should feel similar to when you sneeze. This motion relaxes the pelvic floor muscles and makes it easier for the speculum to slide in.