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Pap smear: Screening test for cervical cancer

Pap smear: Screening test for cervical

Learn how a Pap smear is done and what abnormal Pap smear results mean.

A Pap smear, also called a Pap test, is a procedure to test for cervical cancer in women. A
Pap smear involves collecting cells from your cervix — the lower, narrow end of your

Detecting cervical cancer early with a Pap smear gives you a greater chance at a cure,
should cervical cancer be detected. A Pap smear can also detect changes in your cervical
cells that suggest cancer may develop in the future. Detecting these cells early with a Pap
smear is your first step in halting the possible development of cervical cancer.

Why it's done

A Pap smear is typically done in conjunction with a pelvic examination — a procedure
that allows your doctor to examine your external genitals, vagina, uterus, ovaries and
rectum. Although pelvic examinations can screen for reproductive problems or
abnormalities, only a Pap smear will detect early cervical cancer or precancers.

Who should have a Pap smear?

A number of organizations have recommendations regarding when a woman should have
a Pap smear. Groups generally agree that you should have your first Pap smear about
three years after first having sexual relations or at age 21, whichever comes first.

After age 21, the groups' guidelines differ slightly because each takes different factors
into consideration. Here's a look at Pap smear guidelines from the American Cancer
Society (ACS), the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and
the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF):


21 to 29 Every two years with Annual Pap tests Pap tests at least
a liquid-based test or every three years
annually with a
conventional test
Every two or three Every two or three
years if you've had years if you've had Pap tests at least
Over 30
three negative tests three negative tests every three years
in a row in a row

If you have certain risk factors you should undergo a Pap smear annually, regardless of
your age. These risk factors include:

• A diagnosis of cervical cancer or a Pap smear that showed precancerous cells

• Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth
• HIV infection
• Weakened immune system due to organ transplant, chemotherapy or chronic
corticosteroid use

Who can consider stopping Pap smears?

Discuss your screening options with your doctor. In certain situations a woman and her
doctor may decide to end Pap testing, such as:

• After total hysterectomy. After a total hysterectomy — surgical removal of the

uterus including the cervix — ask your doctor if you need to continue having Pap
smears. If your hysterectomy was performed for a noncancerous condition, such
as fibroids, you may be able to discontinue routine Pap smears. If your
hysterectomy was for a precancerous or cancerous condition, you should have an
annual vaginal Pap smear.
• Older age. Groups don't agree whether there's an upper age limit for routine Pap
tests. ACS guidelines suggest a woman can stop having tests at 70 if she's had
three negative tests in the last 10 years. USPSTF guidelines suggest stopping Pap
testing at 65. ACOG guidelines say there isn't enough evidence to determine an
age at which it's safe to stop testing. Discuss your options with your doctor and
together you can decide what's best for you based on your risk factors.

A Pap smear is a safe way to screen for cervical cancer. However, a Pap smear isn't
foolproof. It's possible to receive false-negative results — meaning that the test indicates
no abnormality, even though you do have abnormal cells.

Estimates for the occurrence of false-negative results with a conventional Pap smear vary
widely but are at least 5 percent — or one in every 20 women. The liquid-based Pap test,
in which the sample of cells is preserved in liquid rather than smeared on a microscope
slide, provides fewer false-negative results. With either test, false-positive results —
when the test indicates an abnormality when there really isn't one — are extremely rare.
A false-negative result doesn't mean that a mistake was made. Many factors can cause a
false-negative result, including:

• An inadequate collection of cells

• A small number of abnormal cells
• An inaccessible location of the lesion
• A small lesion
• Abnormal cells mimicking benign cells
• Blood or inflammatory cells obscuring the abnormal cells

Although it's possible for abnormal cells to go undetected, time is on your side. Cervical
cancer takes several years to develop. And if one test doesn't detect the abnormal cells,
the next test most likely will.

How you prepare

To ensure that your Pap smear is most effective, follow these tips prior to your test:

• Avoid intercourse, douching or using any vaginal medicines or spermicidal

foams, creams or jellies for two days before having a Pap smear, as these may
wash away or obscure abnormal cells.
• Try not to schedule a Pap smear during your menstrual period. Although the test
can be done, it's best to avoid this time of your cycle, if possible.

What you can expect

During the Pap smear
A Pap smear is performed in your doctor's office and takes only a few minutes. You may
be asked to undress completely or only from the waist down.

You'll lie down on your back on an exam table with your knees bent. Your heels rest in
supports called stirrups.

Your doctor will gently insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. The
speculum holds the walls of the vagina apart so that your doctor can easily see your
cervix. Inserting the speculum may cause sensation of pressure in your pelvic area.
Sometimes the speculum feels cold when it's first inserted.

Then your doctor will take samples of your cervical cells using a soft brush and a flat
scraping device called a spatula. This doesn't hurt and you may not even feel the sample
being taken.

After the Pap smear

After your Pap smear, you can go about your day without any restrictions.

Depending on the type of Pap test you're undergoing, your doctor transfers the cell
sample collected from your cervix onto a glass slide or into a container holding a special
liquid to preserve the sample (liquid-based Pap test).

The samples are transferred to a laboratory where a cytotechnologist — a person trained

to detect abnormal cells — will examine the sample. These technicians work in
cooperation with a pathologist — a doctor who specializes in cellular abnormalities. The
pathologist is responsible for the final diagnosis.

Ask your doctor about when you can expect the results of your Pap smear. In some cases,
your doctor will only contact you if something of concern is found or if it's determined
that you need further testing.

Female reproductive system

Female reproductive system

The narrow neck of the uterus is called the cervix. This is where cervical cancer may

Pap smear

Pap smear

During a pelvic exam, your doctor uses a speculum to hold your vaginal walls apart. If
your pelvic exam also includes a Pap test, your doctor collects a sample of cells from
your cervix, using a small cone-shaped brush and a small plastic spatula (1 and 2). Your
doctor then transfers the cells onto a glass slide (3) for examination under a microscope.
Or your doctor may rinse the brush in a liquid-filled vial (4) and send the vial to a
laboratory for testing.


Normal and abnormal cervical cells

Normal and abnormal cervical cells

The slide on the left shows normal cervical cells magnified by a microscope. Normal
cells are uniform in size and shape. By comparison, the slide on the right shows irregular,
disfigured cervical cells — typical of cervical cancer.


The Pap smear can alert your doctor of suspicious cells that need further testing.

Normal results
If only normal cervical cells were discovered during your Pap smear, you're said to have
a negative result. You won't need any further treatment or testing until you're due for
your next Pap smear and pelvic exam.

Abnormal results
If abnormal or unusual cells were discovered during your Pap smear, you're said to have
a positive result. A positive result doesn't mean you have cervical cancer. What a positive
result means depends on the type of cells discovered in your Pap smear.

Here are some terms your doctor might use and what your next course of action might be:

• Atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance (ASCUS). Squamous

cells are thin and flat and grow on the surface of a healthy cervix. In the case of
ASCUS, the Pap smear reveals slightly abnormal squamous cells, but the changes
don't clearly suggest that precancerous cells are present. With the liquid-based
test, your doctor can reanalyze the sample to check for the presence of viruses
known to promote the development of cancer, such as some types of human
papillomavirus (HPV). If no high-risk viruses are present, the abnormal cells
found as a result of the test aren't of great concern. If worrisome viruses are
present, you'll need further testing.
• Squamous intraepithelial lesion. This term is used to indicate that the cells
collected from the Pap smear may be precancerous. If the changes are low-grade,
the size, shape and other characteristics of the cells suggest that if a precancerous
lesion is present, it's likely to be years away from becoming a cancer. If the
changes are high-grade, there's a greater chance that the lesion may develop into
cancer much sooner. Diagnostic testing is necessary.
• Atypical glandular cells. Glandular cells produce mucus and grow in the opening
of your cervix and within your uterus. Atypical glandular cells may appear to be
slightly abnormal, but it's unclear whether they're cancerous. Further testing is
needed to determine the source of the abnormal cells and their significance.
• Squamous cancer or adenocarcinoma cells. The cells collected for the Pap
smear appear so abnormal that the pathologist is almost certain a cancer is present
in the vagina, cervix or, occasionally, the uterus. Squamous refers to cancers
arising in the flat surface cells of the vagina or cervix. Adenocarcinoma refers to
cancers arising in glandular cells. If such cells are found, your doctor will
recommend prompt evaluation.

If your Pap smear is abnormal, your doctor may perform a procedure called colposcopy
using a special magnifying instrument (colposcope) to examine the tissues of the cervix,
vagina and vulva. He or she may take a tissue sample (biopsy) from any areas that appear
abnormal. The tissue sample is then sent to a laboratory for analysis and a definitive

Depression, heart disease and erectile dysfunction

There's mounting evidence that depression is associated with an increased chance of
having heart problems — and erectile dysfunction. Work with your doctor to make sure
you're getting the right treatment if you're feeling down. Treatment can help alleviate
erectile dysfunction and may prevent heart problems.

Depression is treated with counseling and medications. Although treating depression can
help with erectile dysfunction, some antidepressants have sexual side effects. If you do
have bothersome sexual side effects, you may need to try another antidepressant. Your
doctor can also decrease the dose or add another medication to offset the effects of the
antidepressant on erectile dysfunction.

Atherosclerosis: Where erectile dysfunction and heart

disease meet
Atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaques in arteries, can prevent enough blood flow from
reaching your heart, legs and brain — and your penis. If atherosclerosis has made your
arteries in one part of your body narrow and stiff, arteries elsewhere in your body are
probably also affected. When atherosclerosis affects blood flow to your penis, the blood
can't sufficiently fill the penis to allow a suitable erection.

The same factors that raise your risk of atherosclerosis in the arteries in your penis also
increase your chances of heart disease. Because the arteries supplying your penis are
smaller than the ones to your heart, symptoms may first show up as erectile dysfunction.
If you haven't been diagnosed with heart problems, consider erectile dysfunction a wake-
up call. It could be a warning sign that the blood vessels feeding your heart might also be
in trouble.

Medications and erectile dysfunction

Some medications that treat heart disease can make you more likely to develop erectile
dysfunction. These include:

• High blood pressure medications such as clonidine (Catapres), and beta

blockers such as metoprolol (Lopressor)
• Diuretics such as spironolactone (Aldactone), used for high blood pressure as
well as heart failure

Although you can't stop taking your medications, there may be other drug options that are
less likely to cause erectile dysfunction. Discuss your symptoms and potential options
with your doctor.

Anxiety: The worry of heart disease and sex

Men who've had a heart attack or surgery to treat their heart disease are often anxious
about resuming an active sex life. However, intercourse seldom causes heart attacks.
Sexual activity with your usual partner in a familiar setting doesn't lead to a particularly
high blood pressure level or heart rate. Even if you're at high risk of having a heart attack,
weekly sexual activity only slightly raises the risk. Talk to your doctor about when you
can resume sexual activity after you've had heart problems or surgery.

Is your erectile dysfunction linked to heart disease?

Seeing your doctor for erectile dysfunction may have a silver lining. It could be a tip-off
that you have underlying health problems linked to heart disease that need to be checked
out and treated. If your doctor thinks you may be at risk for heart disease, making simple
lifestyle changes may be enough to help keep your heart healthy — and improve your
ability to have an erection. If you have more serious signs and symptoms of heart disease,
you may further tests or treatments.