How a Pap Smear Can Save Your Life

How a Pap Smear Can Save Your Life

If a simple lab study existed that might detect abnormalities in your cells before they develop into an invasive and life-threatening disease, you’d probably sign up quickly — like yesterday. Schedule your visit now, because the Pap smear does just that.

Well known for his outstanding commitment to women and their health care needs, Dr. Richard Bardowell is a highly respected gynecologist and obstetrician who continues to recommend his patients have routine Pap tests as part of a wellness exam.

In case you’re still wondering what it’s all about, Dr, Bardowell is happy to explain what a Pap smear is and why he considers it so vital to your health.

What is the purpose of a Pap smear?

We use the Pap smear to check for cellular abnormalities that may indicate precancerous or cancerous changes in your cervical region. The cervix is the lower, narrow end of your uterus that lies at the top of the vagina.

We also have screening available that tests for the human papillomavirus (HPV). This is critically important since two strains of HPV (type 16 and 8) can lead to cervical cancer. We use the same cervical tissue specimen for both the Pap smear and HPV test.

What is it like to have a Pap smear?

There’s no denying that Pap smears can be uncomfortable because of the nature of the test. But it goes quickly, and my staff and I do our best to help you feel at ease.

You lie on your back on the exam table and place your feet in supports we call stirrups. I insert a device (speculum) into your vagina that keeps your vaginal walls open and provides access to the cervix. Then I use a specially designed instrument (cytobrush) to obtain a sample of cervical cells, which we preserve and send to a lab for evaluation.

Many women note mild discomfort and a slight discharge or even spotty vaginal bleeding immediately afterward, but it’s not considered a physically painful test.

What if the Pap results are abnormal?

It’s important to remember that abnormal Pap smear results don’t mean you have cancer. Rather, an abnormal result simply indicates you have changes within the tissue cells of your cervix that should be checked further or monitored over time.

There are many levels of abnormality. The lab conducting the study generally categorizes the cells from your Pap test as normal vs. mildly, moderately, or severely atypical. By far, most Pap smears return normal results.

Depending on the level of abnormality, I may recommend you return in a couple of months for a repeat Pap test to determine if the changes are still present.

For more concerning results, I might suggest a colposcopy. This painless diagnostic study provides a magnified view of your cervical tissue and allows me to take a closer look at the irregularity.

When necessary, we also take a small sampling of your cervical tissue for further study (biopsy).

What are the benefits of having a Pap smear?

When caught early, cervical cancer has a high cure rate and often requires relatively minor procedures to remove. Once it begins to enlarge or spread into other areas of your body, however, treatments become more invasive and may include a hysterectomy followed by chemotherapy. Cervical cancer survival rates decrease the later it’s detected.

Our goal with early detection via the Pap smear is to catch abnormalities quickly before they become life-threatening. Because cervical cancer typically develops slowly, we have a much better chance of spotting abnormal cells quickly — when they’re still only mildly atypical and much easier to treat — if you include Pap smears as part of your wellness exams.

I usually recommend women have their first Pap smear by age 21, sooner if you’re sexually active, and then every three years through age 65. I may suggest more frequent Pap tests if you have a history of an abnormal result, are HIV positive, or have another medical condition that compromises your immune system.

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