You read a lot about pap smears on this blog, and you’ll keep reading about them because they could save your life. That’s no exaggeration! A pap smear is your best defence against cervical cancer, the second-most common cancer in women, and the most common in developing countries like ours.
Cervical cancer is also one of the most aggressive of all cancers. Even scarier, it’s estimated that in Africa, roughly 78% of women who are diagnosed with the disease will die from it. That’s nearly eight out of 10 women.
It’s critical to remember that cervical cancer is a preventable disease. A pap smear – a simple procedure that tests for pre-cancerous cells in your cervix – can tell a doctor whether you’re at risk of developing the disease. If you are, you can be treated so that the cancer doesn’t develop.
How do I know if I need to start having regular pap smears?
Regardless of your sexual history, if you’re 21 years of age or older, you should be having a pap smear (also known as a smear test) at LEAST every three years.
Even if you don’t feel ill or have any symptoms, you must go for your pap smears. The danger with cervical cancer is that by the time you start to notice that something may be wrong, it could be too late to treat it.
Can a pap smear really prevent cancer?
The pap smear procedure has been designed to detect pre-cancerous changes in the cervix (known as cervical dysplasia). Any pre-cancerous changes will be picked up by your pap smear, and your doctor will be able to decide on the right course of action to take to stop the cancer from developing.
There’s no need to freak out if abnormal cells are detected in your cervix. Your doctor is likely to recommend one of two things: Either that you return in four to six months for a follow-up test (sometimes these abnormalities resolve themselves without medical intervention), or your doctor will perform a colposcopy. This is a minor procedure (also known as a biopsy) whereby a tissue sample is taken from your cervix so your doctor can examine the type of abnormal cells more closely, and decide on a treatment plan.
Some women require more frequent pap smears. How do I know if I do?
Some women are at higher risk for cervical cancer and their doctors may recommend more frequent pap smears. This is not related to your age or sexual history. Risk factors include:
- A previous pap smear that showed pre-cancerous cells
- A diagnosis of cervical cancer
- Having a weakened immune system due to illness, organ transplant, chemotherapy or chronic use of corticosteroids
- Being HIV positive
- Exposure to the non-steroidal oestrogen diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth
At your well woman appointment, you and your doctor can discuss the risks and benefits of your pap smear. Your doctor will determine the ideal regularity with which you should be having your test.
Where can I go for a pap smear or a well woman check-up?
You can ask your doctor, gynecologist or clinic to perform a pap smear. You can also visit your nearest Marie Stopes centre for a pap smear or a complete well woman health check.
A well woman visit will give you complete picture of your overall health, identify any potential risks you face, and help you to stay healthy and fit. These check-ups are offered at our centres across South Africa.