Pap Smears

Shh! The test women quietly love to hate...
(The Pap Smear)

I'm sure for most women; you would rather endure a bikini line wax monthly, than a Pap Smear every two years. For most of us we are familiar with the knowledge that having the Pap smear at regular intervals can actually BE life saving. For those girls who don't know what I'm talking about, and are sexually active, I highly recommend you to visit your local doctor and ask a few questions.

Pap smears are something we try to avoid thinking about, as they can often feel embarrassing, invasive, and sometimes uncomfortable (both physically and emotionally). So instead of keeping Pap Smears a socially inappropriate topic, I'm going to bring up some "normal" issues that we all may think about, but are often too embarrassed to even talk to our best friends about. After all, why should something so life saving be so taboo?

So what is a Pap smear?

A Pap Smear is a simple test that is recommended for women who are sexually active or those who are over the age of 18 years. The test is basically what it is called. It is a "smear" (light scraping) of the tissue from the cervix (the cervix is located below your uterus, and is accessed through your vagina). The smear is to acquire a small sample of cervical cells, which are sent off to a laboratory for testing to ensure there are no abnormalities of these cells. Abnormal cells can often be of no consequence (with your next test being negative to abnormal cells), or it can mean the beginning of cancer, in either case we are fortunate enough to have access to a test that can tell us this.

The procedure

This test can usually be done at your local doctor. Your doctor will ask you to remove your lower clothing (yes, and that does include your underpants). For obvious, yet silly reasons we don't want to discuss the fact that for most, doing this is horrible! Yes the procedure is invasive, as for most it is embarrassing to remove your lower clothing to a stranger (although your socks can stay on for this test). But we don't need to lose sleep over it, because no one is alone in feeling this way. Most of the time you should receive a sheet to place over you, which doesn't help that much, but it does give you a security blanket to hang on to. If your doctor does not give you a sheet, it is your right to ask for one, as it does make the test slightly less invasive. You will then be asked to bring your feet up to your bottom and them relax them apart so that the doctor can see accurately for any outside abnormalities, and to gain access to the vagina. This is probably the hardest part of the test, for most women feelings of vulnerability come up as you feel like you have no control of the procedure, and no one wants to know if anything is abnormal. The chances are slim that there will be anything wrong, but there may be, and I for one would rather know than not know. Remember you can always tell your doctor to stop if you are finding the procedure too uncomfortable.

The doctor normally places what is called a vaginal specula into your vagina. This helps the doctor to access the cervix more easily. The test should only take a couple minutes (if that) and if your doctor is good at taking smears, then it is sometimes over in less than a minute.

So why is it so important?

It is a simple test that is available to women to rule out cervical cancer, or abnormalities in those cells. If a test comes back with cellular abnormalities - don't panic. This means there are some changes in your cells, it doesn't mean you have cancer. Your doctor will probably ask you to come back for another smear test in 6 to 12 months, instead of 2 years. So as you can see, changes in your cells are not always that scary, because you would need to be tested more regularly. Changes in your cells may only occur with one smear test, and then your next one may be normal. A change can however warn you that things are not normal, and if this is the case, a cancer can be treatable before it gets any worse. This then decreases your chances of a cancer becoming terminal.

Pap smears are not our favourite things, but they do save lives. However uncomfortable they may be, they are available for a specific reason and that is to reduce the mortality of cervical cancer.

Tips to make it easier

Remember the test is being taken by a professional who has most likely taken thousands of smear tests throughout their career.

If it makes you more comfortable, have the test done by a female. Many women feel more comfortable with a female taking the test.

It is a test that we are lucky enough to have available that can potentially save lives from a cancer that is treatable in early stages.

This is a good one to remember when you are staring at the ceiling when the test is being taken: Guys between the ages of 20-30 years of age need to have their testicles examined at regular intervals, as there is a high rate of testicular cancer in this age bracket. And for older men they need regular check-ups for prostate cancer, and for this they need a rectal examination (Now I think that's worse than a Pap smear!).

- Louise Ganey (RN)