All sexually active women and those over 25 must have a Pap smear done at least once every three years to screen for cervical cancer, the second most common cancer in South African women.
A Pap smear is a quick, painless test done by a doctor or gynaecologist to detect early changes in cells in the cervix – the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina – which could progress to cancer.
According to the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health, cervical cancer does not suddenly develop. There is a gradual change in the cells from normal to abnormal before they become pre-cancerous and then cancerous. A Pap smear is used to detect these changes so that treatment can start early and cervical cancer can be prevented.
Women should have one Pap smear done every three years, from the age of 25 to 65. If abnormal cells are found, more frequent smears may be recommended, even after the age of 65. However, women who have had a hysterectomy which is a surgical procedure that removes all or parts of the uterus - do not have to have Pap smears anymore.
What happens during the Pap smear procedure
A Pap smear is performed in the doctor's examination room and only takes a few minutes. You lie down on your back on an examination table, with your knees bent, while the doctor gently inserts an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. The speculum holds the walls of your vagina apart so that your doctor can easily see the cervix. Samples are taken of your cervical cells, using a soft brush or flat scraping device called a spatula, and sent to a laboratory for testing.
While a Pap smear is not sore, it can be slightly uncomfortable. After the test, you can carry on with your normal daily activities.
A Pap smear is usually done during a routine pelvic exam. In women older than 30, a Pap smear can be combined with a test for human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection. Almost all cervical cancers and some cancers of the vagina and vulva are caused by HPV.
If a Pap smear is positive and the woman is not treated, she is at high risk of developing cervical cancer over a five- to 30-year period. However, if abnormalities are detected and treated, progression to invasive cervical cancer can be prevented.
DID YOU KNOW?
A Pap smear is free and can be done at any primary healthcare facility such as a clinic or a community health centre.
For more information about having a Pap smear done, visit your nearest clinic or doctor.