St. Joseph's

Cervical Cancer Screening – Pap smear test

What is a cervical cancer screening?

Your doctor inserts a speculum into your vagina. Then using a small wooden spatula and a brush or cotton swab, your doctor gently removes cells from your cervix. The procedure generally takes only a few minutes. Your doctor places the cells on a glass slide and sends them to a laboratory for microscopic examination.

Why should I get screened for cervical cancer?

To detect cancer and precancerous changes of your cervix. You're at increased risk if you have a history of sexually transmitted disease – particularly human papillomavirus (HPV) – multiple sex partners, a history of cervicalvaginal or vulvar cancer, or are a smoker.

How often should I get a cervical cancer screening?

The American Cancer Society recommends that you have your first Pap smear test about three years after first having sexual relations or at age 21 if you haven't been sexually active. After age 21, the guidelines are as follows:

  • Age 21-29 - Once a year using the regular Pap smear test or every 2 years using the liquid-based Pap test. 
  • Age 30 to 69 - Every two to three years if you've had three normal Pap tests in a row.  
  • Age 70 and older - You may stop having Pap smear tests if you've had three normal Pap tests in a row and you've had normal Pap tests in the last 10 years.  

If you've had a hysterectomy – surgical removal of the uterus and cervix – ask your doctor if you need to continue having Pap tests. If your hysterectomy was performed for a noncancerous condition, such as fibroids, you may be able to discontinue routine Pap tests, but not pelvic exams. Regardless of your age, if you have certain risk factors – such as a weakened immune system – you need to be screened annually. In addition, you may need more frequent Pap smear tests if you're at high risk of cervical cancer. Discuss your risks of cervical cancer with your doctor to help determine the optimal frequency of your Pap smear test. 

If your hysterectomy was for a precancerous or cancerous condition, your vaginal canal still needs to be checked for abnormal changes. A Pap smear test is only one part of the pelvic examination. You may benefit from annual pelvic examinations even if a Pap smear isn't needed.

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