A Pap test — named for its inventor, George Papanicolaou — is a medical test that can detect a potential case of cervical cancer before it even starts. The test is undoubtedly a life saver. By some estimates, widespread use of the Pap test has cut cervical cancer deaths by 70 percent.
What Happens during a Pap Test?
The test is very simple. You will lie back on a table with your feet in stirrups while a doctor or nurse collects a few cells from your cervix with a tiny brush or swab. The cells are then put on a glass slide that will be sent to a laboratory. The lab will check for abnormal cells that have at least some potential to turn cancerous. The results should come back within about three weeks. If you don’t hear back from your doctor by then, call to double-check on the results.
How Often Should I Have One?
Most women should start having Pap tests (also called Pap smears) around age 21 and then every two years after that. If you’re 30 or over and you’ve had three normal tests in a row, your doctor might recommend spreading out the tests to one every three years. If you’re over 65 and your doctor says you’re at low risk for cervical cancer — perhaps because you’ve had a long history of normal results — you may be able to stop getting the test entirely.
Women at high risk for cervical cancer should get the test every year. You’re considered high risk if any of the following applies to you:
- You’re HIV-positive.
- Your immune system is unusually weak (perhaps as a side effect of medications for an autoimmune disorder)
- You have had abnormal Pap tests that showed precancerous cells
- You’ve had cervical, uterine, vaginal, or vulvar cancer.
Insurance companies often pay for Pap smears as part of an annual pelvic exam. However, some only pay for one test every three years. If you need help paying for the test, call your local women’s clinic or a city health clinic. You might even get the test for free.
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