A pap smear is a procedure to test for cervical cancer in women – the second most common cancer in women in SA. Here we will explain why it’s important to go, what it feels like and what to do if you have “abnormal” results.
Often discussions around pap smears are left until “women’s month”, but women’s health should be a topic and a health priority all year long.
What Exactly Is A Pap Smear?
A pap smear is the best way to discover precancerous conditions or tumours that could lead to cervical cancer. You’ll start by lying down on an examination table/bed and rest your feet in stirrups or on either side of the table/bed. Your doctor or nurse will ask you to shuffle your lower body down the bed/table until your knees are bent. This position helps them access your cervix (the lower, narrow end of the uterus that forms a canal between the uterus and vagina).
Next, your doctor or nurse will slowly insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. A speculum is a plastic or metal tool with a hinge on one end. The hinge allows the speculum to open, subsequently opening your vaginal canal for easier inspection. They may shine a light into your vagina so that they can take a closer look at your vaginal walls and cervix. Then your doctor will take samples of your cervical cells using a soft brush and a flat scraping device called a spatula. This usually doesn’t hurt and the procedure only takes a couple of minutes.
Who Should Get A Pap Smear?
Usually pap smears are recommended for women over 21 to 65. This includes women are sexually active, have gone through menopause and may included women who have had a hysterectomy. If you aren’t sure about whether you need a pap smear, talk to your doctor.
What Does A Pap Smear Feel Like?
It’s important to note that everyone’s pain thresholds are different, so, to some, a pap smear test may feel like a tiny pinch or, to others, a minor discomfort. A feeling of pressure may be present when the speculum is inserted. It should not hurt (pain could indicate that something else is wrong, so it’s important to speak up).
Prepping For Your Pap Smear
If you’re nervous about the pain or have a low pain threshold, you can take an ibuprofen before or after the exam – check with your doctor if you’re unsure.
Avoid intercourse, douching or using any vaginal medicines or spermicidal foams, creams or jellies for two days before having a pap smear, as these may wash away or obscure abnormal cells.
Avoid getting your pap smear test when you are on or close to your period, as the presence of blood can make it difficult for your provider to collect a clear sample of cervical cells.
Occasionally spotting can occur after the test, so pack a panty-liner just in case or if you’re unsure.
Why Should You Get Tested Annually?
According to the Western Cape Government, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women in South Africa after breast cancer. One in every 42 women has a lifetime risk of being diagnosed with cervical cancer, says the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA).
The good news is that cervical cancer can be successfully treated if detected in the early stages, which is why going for annual pap smear tests is not only important, but early detection can help save your life. Medshield Medical Scheme members receive a free pap smear test per annum, included in your wellness benefits.
What happens if my results are abnormal?
When the results of the test come back (usually after a couple of days), your doctor or nurse will contact you to talk you through the findings. If the case is that the test results show “abnormal” cells it could mean a number of things, depending on what cells were discovered in the test.
Abnormal cells are graded into levels: low-grade and high-grade. Depending on the results, you may need to be referred for further testing and treatment of the abnormality. This will prevent it from becoming cancer.
If you have any questions or would like to find out more, don’t hesitate to speak to your doctor.