How a Pap Smear Can Help Prevent Cervical Cancer
What is a Pap smear?
A Pap smear is a cervical cancer screening for women. It’s fairly routine and involves a speculum exam where your doctor will scrape cells from your cervix and analyze them for any abnormalities.
A Pap smear, however, is not the same as a HPV test. While they both help screen for cervical cancer, only a Pap smear tests for abnormal cells. The two tests can sometimes be combined. Make sure to ask your doctor if a HPV test is included in your Pap smear.
What’s the difference between a Pap smear vs. pelvic exam?
A Pap smear is also very different from a pelvic exam. Although both exams are in support of your gynecological health, one screens for cancer and the other assesses your reproductive health. Pelvic exams focus on the vulva as well as the internal reproductive organs: the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.
In the external part of the exam, the doctor will check for genital warts and other skin changes, while the internal part of the exam requires the doctor to use the same tool as a Pap smear to inspect the cervix. At this point, a Pap smear may be done. Sometimes the two are confused because they can be combined, but a pelvic exam alone does not screen for cervical cancer. If you’ve received a pelvic exam without a Pap smear, it’s extremely important to also book a Pap smear.
Why is a Pap smear important?
Cervical cancer is a preventable disease, which means it can be avoided by finding pre-cancer with screening and treating it before it becomes cancer. Studies show that most women with cervical cancer have had inadequate cervical cancer screenings.
In the US, there are 13,000 cases of cervical cancer diagnosed each year and 4,000 deaths. Getting regular pap smears is the best defense women have against cervical cancer. Without Pap smears, cervical cancer can go undetected and untreated for years.
What causes cervical cancer?
The majority of cervical cancer is caused by Human papillomavirus (HPV). It might be a term you’ve heard floating around in reference to HPV vaccinations, but what is HPV? It’s a common sexually transmitted disease (STD) that 75-80% of sexually active adults will get by the time they’re 50 years old. The disease causes abnormal cells on the cervix, which is exactly what Pap smears are looking for.
It takes 10-15 years after being infected with HPV for those abnormal cells to progress to pre-cancer and eventually become cervical cancer. There are treatments available for pre-cancer of the cervix and cervical cancer, however, the sooner abnormal cells are detected, the more effective treatments will be.
Not everyone with HPV gets cervical cancer. Many women can fight off the virus but there are some types of HPV that the body can’t overcome. If the body cannot overcome the virus, the abnormal cells will progress to pre-cancer of the cervix. When pre-cancer of the cervix is detected, there are procedures that can remove part of the cervix to remove the pre-cancer and prevent cancer. A cold knife cone removes a cone-shaped piece of tissue from the cervix. A loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) uses a heated, thin wire loop to remove the cervical tissue. Removing this tissue treats the pre-cancer by removing it.
What can we do to prevent cervical cancer?
The best way to prevent cervical cancer is to be proactive. Girls and boys should get the HPV vaccine when they’re 11 or 12 years old to help the body build immunity against the dangerous forms of HPV with a catch-up period between ages 13-26. However, for high risk patients you can receive the HPV vaccination up until age 45.
Once women turn 21, it’s important to get Pap smears every three years until turning 30. After 30, a Pap smear will include a HPV test and only needs to be done every five years if everything is normal. If the test results are abnormal for any reason, your doctor might recommend more frequent pap smears or a procedure where they can look very closely at the cervix and sample the tissue. The doctor can also recommend a procedure to remove the abnormal cells to prevent them from progressing into cancer.
Book your appointment
Women’s Health of Newberry is dedicated to the health and well-being of our patients. I’m so proud to have joined the Newberry County Memorial Hospital team to continue my passion for treating complex gynecological issues and providing the best care possible for women right here in Newberry. I am now taking new patients and am available to perform procedures such as Pap smears, colposcopy, LEEP, cold knife cone, sexually transmitted disease screening, HPV vaccine administration, and more.
Schedule an appointment with Dr. Burriss by calling 803.405.7140.