January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, which means it’s a great time for you to learn about how Pap tests can save your life by protecting you from cervical cancer.
A Pap test, also known as a Pap smear, is a simple test that can detect abnormal cells in your cervix, which is the lower part of your uterus that opens into your vagina.
During Cervical Health Awareness Month, our providers at Women’s Healthcare of Princeton would like to share some important facts with you about Pap tests and cervical health.
The Pap test saves many lives
The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 13,000 women in the United States will receive a diagnosis of cervical cancer in 2019, and about 4,250 will die from the disease.
At one time, cervical cancer was one of the most common causes of cancer death among American women. However, after the Pap test was developed, cervical cancer death rates dropped significantly.
The Pap test can detect changes in your cervical cells long before cancer develops. And it can catch cervical cancer early, when it’s easiest to treat. The best way to detect cervical cancer early is through regular screening with a Pap test in combination with a test for human papillomavirus (HPV).
When to have a Pap test
Your care providers at Women’s Healthcare of Princeton perform Pap tests as part of your routine pelvic exams.
You don’t need Pap tests every year, because it typically takes 3-7 years for certain changes in cervical cells to become cancer. Generally, we do Pap tests once every three years for women between the ages of 21 and 65.
Starting at the age of 30, we may recommend that you either continue having a Pap test every three years or have a Pap test along with an HPV screening test every five years. This is known as co-testing.
If you’re at risk for cervical cancer, we may recommend more frequent Pap smears. If no abnormal cells are detected for a certain amount of time, we may stop testing after you reach age 65.
Preparing for a Pap smear
You can take some simple steps to prepare for your Pap test. Avoid having sex for two days before your test. And don’t use douches, medicines applied via your vagina, or spermicidal creams, jellies, or foams, because they may obstruct abnormal cells.
It’s also best not to schedule your Pap test during your menstrual period, if possible, because menstrual fluids can interfere with the test.
What to expect during a Pap test
Here’s how a Pap smear works: While you lie on an exam table during your pelvic exam, your care provider inserts a tool called a speculum to open your vagina. Your provider then uses a swab or brush to gently remove cells from your cervix.
Your provider places the cells into a liquid-filled container and sends the container to a laboratory for testing. If the laboratory detects abnormal cells, we notify you and talk with you about follow-up recommendations.
Keep in mind that having an abnormal Pap test result doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer.
Learn more about Pap tests and cervical cancer
If you live in or around Princeton, New Jersey, and have questions about your cervical health, your care providers at Women’s Healthcare of Princeton are here for you. Call us for an appointment or book your visit online today.