For most women, going to the gynecologist can be as scary, or even scarier, as going to the dentist. As soon as the doctor wears those gloves and gets their speculum ready, you feel more vulnerable in that paper gown and more fearful than when you get your teeth pulled out.
But just because it's scary doesn't mean you should avoid it! A trip to the gynecologist can help you better understand your body and its changes.
One gynecological exam that is least discussed but is one of the most integral checkups every adult woman should get every 3-5 years after she turns 21 is a pap smear.
In this process, the doctor uses a speculum to open up the vaginal walls so they can scrape some cells from the surface of the cervix to check signs of cervical cancer.
So why is a pap test really needed?
The pap test helps doctors see under a microscope if you have cell changes that could develop into cervical cancer or existing cancerous cells. It's a test rarely done alone, as it's often followed by a pelvic exam or a human papillomavirus (HPV) test. HPV has a high risk of leading to cervical cancer.
A pap test screens for cancer of the cervix (the passageway between the vagina and the uterus). A pap test can also be used to screen for non-visible human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. The pap test is not a specific test for HPV, although sometimes the results suggest that HPV might be present.
It doesn't matter what your sexual history is, doctors still recommend getting a pap test.
Samina is a 45-year old widow who has decided not to get married again. She has never gotten a pap test in her life. Should she get one, considering she's not currently sexually active?
Does it always hurt? How can I prepare for it in advance?
Fortunately, a pap smear is neither a painful process nor a long one! If your doctor uses the right size of speculum, it shouldn't hurt at all. It may cause period-like cramping for a few minutes during the process but should quickly go away. In rare cases, it may last a few days but that is normal.
Once the test is over, what happens next?
Depending on your testing facility, pap test results take roughly 1-3 weeks to turn up. The results could show that the cells collected from your cervix might be normal, unclear, or abnormal.
If the results show that cells are normal, there's nothing to worry about! But this shouldn't mean you'll never get another pap test. Make sure to schedule another one in a few years, or on the advice of your doctor.
If the results say unclear, it could be due to menopause, pregnancy, or an infection, and a doctor should definitely be reached for a consultation.
An abnormal result doesn't always mean that you have cervical cancer, but that there are certain abnormal low-grade or high-grade cell changes on your cervix which are likely caused by HPV.
These changes may return to normal over time or turn into pre-cancer. That's why more tests and monitoring might be required. The sooner you know, the better it is for treatment.
Why do women & girls avoid getting a pap test done?
Shaming by self, family, or friends
When 5 million women were invited for a smear test in UK, one in four skipped the test. This is often because women are uncomfortable with the process. Feeling shy or insecure about the private areas of their bodies can keep women from getting the test.
Many women will try to avoid this test if they can't find a female gynecologist in their area or delay it for a later time.
Some unprofessional doctors can sometimes ask insensitive questions during the test or use it as an opportunity to shame those who have had pre-marital sex.
Affordability & accessibility
In rural areas, it's very hard to find doctors trained to do the test or the lab facilities to get the test results. A lot of women with limited financial means can have trouble paying for it themselves.
What should I do to promote cervical health in my community?