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Importance of Pap Smear to Prevent Cervical Cancer

written by: Tania Cowling • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 8/24/2010

The Pap smear is a non-invasive test developed by Dr. George Papanicolaou in the 1930's that has been the screening method for cervical cancer. Read on for more information about Pap smear in cervical cancer prevention.

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    Why are Pap Smears Important?

    microbiologist There are several tests that women must consider yearly. The Pap smear in cervical cancer prevention should be addressed with utmost importance. Cervical cancer is one that affects a women’s reproductive system and with regular Pap smear screening the death rate from this cancer has decreased within the last 50 years.

    A simple test done by a general practitioner or gynecologist can save lives. The Pap smear looks for abnormal cells or changes in the cervix that can denote cancer or that cancer can occur in the future. When the doctor is doing a pelvic exam, a speculum is inserted to aid in viewing the cervix. A stick or brush is used to collect cells from the cervix wall and placed into a container to be sent off to the laboratory. Within a few weeks your test results will come back to your doctor. Women should begin to have Pap smears by the age of 21 (sometimes earlier if the girl is sexually active) and continue until the age of 65 or until the doctor tells you to stop.

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    Preparing for Your Pap Smear

    In order to obtain the best specimen for testing and accurate results, avoid intercourse, the use of any vaginal spermicidals, or vaginal medications for at least two days prior to your testing. It's also necessary to schedule your Pap smear during the time of your cycle where you have no bleeding.

    There are two types of testing methods used today for Pap smears. One is called the liquid-based-thin-layer slide preparation. The cells taken from the cervix are collected on a brush and rinsed into a liquid preservative vial that is sent to the lab. The conventional method is where the cells are placed on a glass slide and sprayed with a fixative.

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    Pap Smear Results

    As with many types of cancer, some women are more prone to develop cervical cancer than others. Women who have had intercourse at an early age are more at risk along with those who have had many sexual partners. According to the Mayo Clinic, recent studies have found that certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes sexually transmitted genital warts, can be found in the tissues of women with cervical cancer. However, not all strains of HPV are associated with this high risk; 11 out of 16 strains are the most virulent.

    The returning Pap smear results can alert your doctor if you need any further testing. A negative report signifies that cells from the cervix were normal and unchanged. Sometimes unusual cells will appear which denotes a positive Pap smear, however, not all positive results mean a woman has cervical cancer. According to which cells are found determines whether further testing or treatment is needed.

    Atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance (ASCUS) are sometimes found on a healthy cervix and these changes do not suggest precancerous cells are present. Doctors then recheck for viruses such as HPV which could cause the development of cancer in the future. A Pap smear that contains squamous intraepithelial lesions may be precancerous and could lead to cancer at a later time. A woman with this report should have future testing. Atypical glandular cells tend to grow at the cervix opening and within the uterus. These cells are abnormal but not necessarily cancerous. Again further testing is warranted.

    If a Pap smear comes back with squamous cell cancer or adenocarcinoma cells, then the pathologist is certain a cancer is probable and looks further for evaluation. Any abnormal Pap smears warrant a biopsy or a procedure called a colposcopy. This test uses a magnifying instrument (colposcope) to look at the tissues of the cervix, vagina and vulva for anything abnormal. Specimens are sent off to the laboratories for a definite diagnosis and grading.

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    Conclusion and References

    The use of the Pap smear in cervical cancer prevention is imperative for all women. An ounce of prevention is worth its weight in gold.

    Mayo Clinic: Pap Smear http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/pap-smear/MY00090/DSECTION=results

    Mayo Clinic: Cervical Cancer http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cervical-cancer/DS00167

    Menopause and Midlife Health by Morris Notelovitz, M.D., Ph.D. and Diana Tonnessen [St. Martin's Press, 1993]

    Photo credit: by puravida http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/75737