What is a Pap smear ?
The Papanicolaou smear, or Pap for short, is a screening test for cervical cancer. During your annual gynecologic exam, your provider will use a speculum in the vagina to visualize the cervix. The cervix is gently scraped to collect cells which are then sent to a pathologist for evaluation under the microscope.
What causes cervical cancer ?
Cervical cancer is caused by HPV (Human Papilloma Virus), a sexually transmitted virus that is very easy to pass from one partner to another. You could be infected after only one sexual encounter and it may affect the cervix 3 months or 30 years later. If you have had more than one sexual partner, there is no way of knowing which partner exposed you to the virus. Once exposed to HPV, your immune system fights and tries get rid of the virus. Usually the body is successful in replacing the abnormal cervical cells with normal ones, a process that may take several months to years.
What causes genital warts ?
The HPV also causes genital warts. Within the family of HPV there are two groups, one that causes cervical cancer and one that causes genital warts. Within each group there are 100+ different strains of the virus, each given a number. Doctors worry more about the “high-risk type” that causes cervical cancer, a potentially lethal disease. The public tends to worry more about the strains that cause genital warts because of the associated social stigma, however these strains are not concerning from a cancer standpoint. Both warts and pre-cancer of the cervix are treatable, especially if caught early.
What happens if I cannot fight HPV ?
For those women whom are unable to fight the HPV, the cervical cells go through a series of precancerous changes. Research suggests it takes up to 10 years for cells to change from normal to cancer, but it may happen quickly in only 1 year. If precancerous changes are detected, the cervix is able to be treated and cervical cancer 100% prevented. This is why it is so important to get a Pap smear every year !
Should I worry about HPV if my Pap is normal ?
No. If your Pap is normal, then either you have not been exposed or you have been exposed and your body fought the virus. Over 90% of sexually active women have, or have had, HPV but very few ultimately get cervical cancer. It’s like the flu, many people are infected each year but very few become deathly ill.
Why do I need a Colposcopy ?
Pap smears are an excellent FIRST evaluation of the cervix. If your Pap is abnormal, your doctor will do a second evaluation called a colposcopy. Colposcopy is a 15 minute procedure performed in the office using a machine that magnifies the cervix. Your provider will apply a vinegar solution to the cervix then use the colposcope to look for abnormal cells on the cervix or vagina. A biopsy, or sampling of cells, may be taken from either the outside or inside of the cervix. The results of these biopsies will determine the next step in your treatment. Most women only need to have Pap smears more often, every 6-12 months, until the abnormal cells go away.
Am I a candidate for the HPV Vaccine ?
The Gardasil vaccine is a series of 3 shots given to females between ages 9 and 26. It is most effective if received BEFORE you ever become sexually active. It is very effective and can prevent 70% of cervical cancers and 90% of genital warts. Many insurance plans are now paying for the Gardasil vaccine. To find out if your insurance policy covers the vaccination, call the phone number on the back of your insurance card.