A pap smear is a routine procedure performed by your doctor as a preventive measure against cervical cancer for most women older than 21. According to the American Cancer Society, this simple procedure has helped lower the mortality rate from cervical cancer by 50 percent within the last 40 years as it tests for precancerous or cancerous cells on the cervix.
Beginning at age 21, most women will regularly receive pap smears. However, some women may require more frequent testing due to higher-risk of cervical cancer if they are HIV-positive or have a weakened immune system. Cervical cancer is caused primarily by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is sexually transmitted but can lay dormant for years before showing symptoms. However, even women who are not sexually active should receive a pap smear as not all cancers are caused by a viral infection.
During a pap smear, a small sample of cells is scraped from the cervix. The procedure can be somewhat uncomfortable, but it is quick. Discomfort may include slight cramping and light bleeding for some patients. The sample obtained is sent to a lab for testing to identify whether abnormal cells are present.
If the results come back normal or “negative,” another test generally will not be needed for three years. If the results are “abnormal,” this does not necessarily mean a cancer diagnosis, just that abnormal cells have been found. Your doctor will discuss a treatment plan with you or recommend further testing if needed.