Cervical cancer is a deadly disease, made more treacherous by the frequent lack of symptoms. While some women with this condition experience pain or abnormal bleeding, many don’t realize they’re sick until the disease has already spread. According to estimates by the American Cancer Society, in 2018, 13,240 women will be diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer, and 4,170 will die from the disease. While the numbers surrounding this illness are grim, the good news is that women can take steps to protect their health. A Pap test, or Pap smear, remains the best way to check for cervical cancer cells, provided that you are diligent about being tested.
Named after George Papanicolaou, the doctor who created it, a Pap test examines the cervix for cancerous and precancerous cells. During the assessment, a doctor inserts a metal or plastic speculum into the vagina and takes a sample of cervical cells using a swab. The test isn’t painful, though women may experience pressure. The cells are then sent to a lab and tested for signs of cancer. Additionally, a Pap smear can find abnormal cells so they can be treated before turning cancerous. In this sense, undergoing Pap tests regularly is one of the best ways to prevent cervical cancer from developing.
If you’re between 21 and 65, then you likely need to undergo Pap testing as part of a preventative healthcare routine. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, it’s important to be tested even if you are not sexually active. While the STI known as HPV (human papillomavirus) is a common cause of cervical cancer, women can and do develop the disease from other causes. If you have gone through menopause but are younger than 65, you should still undergo regular Pap testing to preserve your health.
While past recommendations dictated that women undergo Pap tests on an annual basis, new research suggests that less frequent testing may be appropriate. According to the Department of Health, most women in the US should adhere to the following guidelines:
It’s generally considered safe to stop testing if you:
Additionally, certain health factors may affect how often women need Pap smears. Individuals with immune systems that are weakened due to chemotherapy or steroid use will likely require more frequent testing. Additionally, women with a history of cervical cancer and those who are HIV positive may need extra testing. Talk to your doctor before making any decisions that could affect your long-term health.