We get told to have them regularly, and the news is usually received with chills down our spine. We get it; they’re important. But why?
What are Pap Smears?
Cervical cancer is often asymptomatic (meaning it often doesn't show any symptoms). People can have cervical cancer without knowing it, until it gets large enough to start causing issues such as pain, bleeding, or difficulty urinating. By this time, it is harder to treat, and the five-year survival rate is reduced. A Pap Smear is a test that detects abnormal cells (before they have turned into cancer cells) and cervical cancer cells early.
How do Pap Smears work?
Named after its inventor Dr. Georgios Papanikolaou, the Pap Smear is a way of detecting early cervical cancer. Using a brush that is similarly looking to a mascara wand, the outer lining of the cervix is “scraped” and placed in onto a microscope slide. Doctors can look for abnormal cells, and diagnose cervical cancer before it presents any problems for the patient. At this stage it easier to treat and the five-year survival rate is markedly increased. In September 2016, Cancer Research UK conducted a study that found cervical screening tests such as the Pap Smear has prevented up to 70% of women dying from cervical cancer, thanks to early detection and treatment.
What's the difference between a Pap Smear and a Cervical Screening Test?
You may find that in countries such as United Kingdom, America, Canada, and Australia you don’t hear the term Pap Smear anymore but the Cervical Screening Test (CST). CST is performed using the same technique as a Pap Smear. However, it also includes testing for the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a virus that is sexually transmitted and has been shown to cause abnormal changes in the cervix which can develop into cervical cancer.
When to have a Pap Smear / Cervical Screening Test
In the past few years clinical guidance for who should have the CST and how often has changed. Overall (this is a generalisation, it may be different for where you reside), the age for having your first CST has increased from 18 to 25 years old. And the frequency has increased from two years to three to five years. The reason for raising the age is the number of women diagnosed with cervical cancer between the ages of 18-25 has not changed.
If you are unsure whether you need a CST or Pap Smear, or do not know who to speak to about having one, your GP or practice nurse is a great starting point. Sexual health clinics and Women's clinics also provide CST and Pap Smears.