Medical screenings can sometimes be one of those things that you know you need to do, but you keep putting off because of scheduling issues or fear that they may be uncomfortable or even embarrassing. For many women, pap smears, also known as a Pap test, definitely qualify as both a bit uncomfortable and embarrassing.
As is the case for many things we tend to avoid, the benefits of a Pap smear far outweigh any moments of minor discomfort. In fact, a Pap smear can literally save your life.
In this blog, the skilled team of health professionals at Formé Medical Center in White Plains, New York, provide a deep dive on how Pap smears work and why this screening test is recognized to be the most game-changing advance in the control of cancer in the 20th century.
Pap testing explained
Many of us might not be old enough to remember a time when the Pap smear didn’t exist. Yet in the early 1900s, diagnostic procedures to detect cervical cancer were inadequate.
In all too many instances, by the time the doctor was able to discover the cancer, it was already too late. For this reason cervical cancer became one of the top causes of cancer deaths for women in the United States.
Today the incidence of cervical cancer in American women has been greatly reduced. In fact, cervical cancer is considered a preventable and curable cancer in no small part due to the perseverance of Dr. Georgios Nikolaou Papanicolaou, a Greek doctor who spent decades developing the Pap smear.
In 1928 his breakthrough discovery that cervical cancer could be detected by checking for abnormal cells under a microscope changed not only medical history, but also ultimately reversed the trend of cervical cancer deaths for American women.
Despite the reduction of cancer deaths due to detection through Pap testing, the importance of being vigilant remains. According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 14,480 new cases of invasive cervical cancer are diagnosed annually, and sadly about 4,290 women will die from cervical cancer.
Remarkably, 20 minutes or so of your time can literally save your life. A Pap smear is a simple in-house screening that is sometimes performed with a pelvic exam.
Generally doctors recommend that women between the ages of 21 and 65 get routine Pap smears. How often they should be performed varies depending on your medical history and whether you have ever had an abnormal Pap smear.
How Pap smears screen for cancer and cell changes
During your Pap smear, your health care provider uses an instrument called a speculum to widen your vaginal walls in order to get a view of your cervix and to more easily collect a sample of cells.
The sample is then sent to a laboratory to be tested. A normal result means there’s no signs of cervical cancer. An abnormal test result indicates that something is amiss and changes in the cells have been detected that could ultimately become cancer; or it’s possible that something else like an infection is going on.
Early detection can prevent cervical cancer
While it’s important to understand the process and overarching purpose of getting a Pap smear, it really comes down to two crucial takeaways — prevention and survival. A Pap smear gives your health care provider a time-tested tool to prevent cervical cancer by detecting precancerous cells way before they become cancer.
And as if that weren’t enough, if you do develop cervical cancer and a Pap smear detects it early, your chances of successful treatment are greatly increased.
In fact, despite its long history and the many medical advances that have happened since its invention, a Pap smear is still considered the most successful screening test ever introduced for preventing serious cancer malignancies.
If you’re concerned about cervical cancer or would like to book a visit for a Pap smear, contact Formé Medical Center. To schedule an appointment, call our office or request an appointment online today.