Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix. The cervix is part of your uterus (womb).
A Pap smear is a test your doctor does to check for signs of cancer of the cervix.
The cells from your cervix are checked for signs that they're changing from normal cells to abnormal cells. Before they turn into cancer, cells go through a series of changes. The results of your Pap smear can show whether your cells are going through these changes long before you actually have cancer. If caught and treated early, cervical cancer is not life threatening. This is why it is so important that you get regular Pap smears.
The main risk factors for cervical cancer are related to sexual practices. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) may make your cells more likely to undergo changes that can lead to cancer. STIs include HPV, herpes, gonorrhea and chlamydia. HPV is the virus that can cause genital warts. It seems to be very closely connected with these changes.
During a Pap smear, your doctor will put a special instrument called a speculum into your vagina. This helps open your vagina so the doctor can see your cervix and take a sample. Your doctor will gently clean your cervix with a cotton swab and then collect a sample of cells with a small brush, a tiny spatula or a cotton swab. Your doctor will put this sample on a glass slide and send it to a lab to be checked under a microscope.
A normal Pap smear means that all the cells in your cervix are normal and healthy. An abnormal Pap smear can be a sign of a number of changes in the cells on your cervix, including:
If the results of your Pap smear are abnormal, your doctor may want to do another Pap smear or may want you to have a colposcopy. A colposcopy gives your doctor a better look at your cervix and allows him or her to take a sample of tissue (called a biopsy).
Certain things put you at higher or lower risk for cervical cancer. Your doctor will consider these when recommending how often you should have a Pap smear.
If you're older than 65 years of age, talk with your doctor about how often you need a Pap smear. If you've been having Pap smears regularly and they've been normal, you may not need to keep having them.
If you've had a hysterectomy with removal of your cervix, talk with your doctor about how often you need a Pap smear.
If you've never had a high-grade precancerous lesion or cervical cancer, ask your doctor how often you need a Pap smear.
No test is perfect, but the Pap smear is a reliable test. It has helped drastically lower the number of women who die of cervical cancer.
Sometimes the test may need to be redone because there were not enough cells on the slide. The lab will tell your doctor if this happens.
ThinPrep, PAPNET and FocalPoint are ways to make Pap smears more accurate. ThinPrep is a way of preparing the sample of cells that makes it easier to spot abnormalities. PAPNET and FocalPoint are computer systems that help lab technicians find abnormal cells. These options may not be available in all areas, and they may increase the cost of a Pap smear.
Plan to have your test done at a time when you aren't having your menstrual period. Don't douche, use a feminine deodorant or have sex for 24 hours before the test.
You may be able to reduce your risk of cervical cancer if you:
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff