Pap Smear Defined
A Pap smear is a medical test that involves obtaining a cell sample from the cervix. The cervix is the neck of the uterus and is situated at the top of a woman's vagina. The sample is smeared on a slide and viewed under a microscope. The results may show that the cells are normal or that they have become precancerous or cancerous.
While no one would term a Pap smear as a pleasurable experience, it's over with fast and doesn't hurt. It may seem a bit invasive, but taking a deep breath and being as relaxed as possible will get you through your Pap smear experience just fine.
One issue with the Pap smear is that while it is somewhat accurate, it isn't perfect. That means you can end up receiving a false positive or false negative result. In the first case, you'll be told you have abnormal cells when in fact, you're absolutely fine. You'll have a scare until the test is repeated and you discover it was just a mistake. But the second case may be even worse: you're given a clean bill of health while meantime; you've possibly got cancer brewing. No one is going to tell you to retest for a negative Pap smear but the results could be dire. Still, in every third world country in which regular Pap smears were introduced, the number of deaths due to cervical cancer has gone down. Pap smears have more than proven their worth.
Most of the time, if a Pap smear does suggest abnormal cellular changes, the cancer is found before it becomes malignant and while the cancer is still treatable. But keep in mind that a Pap smear only checks for cervical cancer and not other gynecological cancers such as ovarian, vaginal, or uterine cancers. However, it is usual for you to undergo a pelvic exam during the same gynecological examination during which you have your Pap smear done. A pelvic exam should provide clues to these other cancers.
Pap smears cause no harm to pregnant women so don't use your pregnancy to avoid having your Pap smear. It's quite safe to have a Pap smear while you're pregnant. It won't bring on labor or introduce germs.
Pap testing is not indicated in those women who have had a total hysterectomy, since the cervix has been removed. Pap smears test for cervical cancer, so if there's no cervix, there's no cervical cancer. Women who have what is known as a subtotal hysterectomy, in which the cervix is left intact, should continue to have regular Pap smears according to the guideline for women who have not undergone a hysterectomy.
Women should not have a Pap smear during their menstrual periods. It's best to schedule your screening at some point between days 10 and 20 of your cycle, or 10-20 days from the start of your period. Two days prior to having a Pap smear, it's best to stop douching, avoid all vaginal contraception (jellies, creams, and foams), and don't use vaginal medication without checking with your physician. All of these substances can distort your Pap smear reading.