Getting regular Pap smear can help early detection of cervical cancer

The Pap, short for Papanicolaou test, is very valuable for the early detection of cancer of the cervix and uterus. The cervix is the opening connecting the uterus and vagina. The doctor takes a sample of the cells from the cervix and puts them on a slide or in a liquid. The cells are stained and carefully examined under a microscope.

Patients should prepare in the following manner before visiting the doctor for a Pap smear:

  • Schedule your visit for approximately two weeks after the first day of the last menstrual period.
  • Stop using vaginal medications 72 hours before the exam.
  • Abstain from sexual relations 24 hours before the exam.

The Pap is a screening test, which means that a "negative" Pap smear is good—it means the patient is at lower risk for cervical cancer. A "positive" or "abnormal" result indicates that the patient is possibly at higher risk for cervical cancer, and additional tests are required for a diagnosis.

If the Pap smear shows an abnormality, a follow-up Pap may be done in three to six months. In most cases, the abnormality is due to inflammation or infection. If the second Pap is abnormal, the doctor may order a colposcopy. A colposcopy is a procedure in which the doctor takes a closer look at the cervix using a magnifying lens. The doctor may want to take a biopsy (a specimen of tissue) for microscopic examination to determine if precancerous cells are present. Cervical cancer develops very slowly, so early diagnosis means a much better chance of successful treatment. Since the 1940s, when Pap smears were first introduced, the incidence of cervical cancer has decreased by 70 percent.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends a yearly Pap smear for women who are over the age of 18 or sexually active. If three consecutive Pap smears are negative, screenings may be done every two or three years.

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