The time of year has come, you double-check the calendar – once, twice, thrice. You make up a few excuses in your head, and you consider rescheduling (BUT YOU DON’T!). Yes, the time has come for your old frenemy, the Pap smear. To those responsible for giving things terrible names, we salute you.
Whether we have modesty concerns, feeling vulnerable and exposed, fear of discomfort or pain, fear of bad news, it’s just all around not the most fun part of our year (or three years to be more exact, but we will talk about that later). I will echo my parents’ parenting by saying, sometimes in life; we have to suck it up and do hard things when it’s essential. And listen up, my friends, this IS important. Let’s break it down a little and see if we can dispel some nerves and promote the Pap’s many merits.
Why do we need Pap smears? Is it necessary? The answer to that question is a resounding YES! According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cervical cancer is the 4th most common cause of cancer in women. According to the American Cancer Society, it also used to be one of the most common causes of cancer death, but those rates have significantly dropped thanks to the Pap smear.
One might ask, what is the origin of cervical cancer? Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted virus, is super common, and is also the cause of cervical cancer 99% of the time (WHO). For many women, HPV, if acquired, will resolve spontaneously, and persistent infection can lead to cervical cancer. When you get a Pap smear, we sample your cervical cells to ensure no abnormalities. A SOFT bristled brush is used to collect the sample, not a scalpel. This sample allows us to find changes in the cervix before cancer even has a chance to develop! Amazing! And if it has developed, we can usually catch it while it is small and much easier to treat. So give a clap for the Pap! Although the clap is a topic for another discussion, so maybe just a round of applause? What’s a cervical discussion without a little sense of humor?
Let’s end with a few guidelines on the when: Happy 21st birthday to you! A world of possibilities just opened up as well as your first Pap smear! Starting at 21 years old and then every three years after (as long as everything comes back normal), you need a Pap smear. Once you turn 30, there is additional testing that can change the frequency to every five years. These recommendations continue until about age 65. Not too bad, right? It used to be annual if that makes you feel any better.
While Pap day maybe isn’t everyone’s favorite day, I hope you can see why it is necessary. Not every cancer is this easy to screen for or prevent, and a Pap smear isn’t that bad. Whatever might be stopping you, it’s time to decide if the risk is worth it. And while some women may be completely comfortable with a male provider performing their Pap smear (remember they do it all the time), if that’s what’s holding you back, remember there are plenty of female providers out there like me. You need to ask for one. Come on in, ladies. Deep breaths. You got this.
Katie Bates, FNP
Canyon View Family Medicine