What Is a Cervical Smear?
The cervical smear test is known by several other names, including the Papanicolaou test and the Pap smear. The test is named for Georgios Papanikolaou, the doctor who invented the procedure.
A cervical smear is a routine test that can be performed by a general practitioner, although many women choose to visit a gynecologist. During the test, a sample of cells is taken from the cervix. The cells are then tested in a laboratory to detect signs of cancer and cellular abnormalities that may lead to cancer.
Why Is the Smear Test Important?
A cervical smear is a preventative healthcare test women can opt for to help protect themselves against cervical cancer. Globally, cervical cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer-related death in women. In countries where cervical smear testing is routine for women, however, deaths from cervical cancer are less frequent. In the U.S., for example, cervical cancer is the eighth most common cancer-related cause of death in women.
The cervical smear test is important for women because it can effectively prevent the development of cervical cancer. The test can detect the cancer itself – allowing women to obtain early treatment and improve their chances of full recovery – and it can also detect cellular changes that may lead to cancer in the future. This means that not only can the test detect cancer early, it can detect potential cancer before it has a chance to develop.
Undergoing regular cervical smear tests for early cancer detection is particularly important because women who develop cervical cancer often have few symptoms in the early to middle stages of the disease. It is not until the disease has progressed significantly that symptoms of cervical cancer begin to appear, meaning that effective treatment is often difficult.
Even so, up to 80 percent of American women diagnosed with cervical cancer have not had a smear test in the five years prior to diagnosis, and many have never had a smear test at all.
Cervical Smear Procedure
Getting a cervical smear test is quick and is usually painless; however, the test can be physically uncomfortable. During the procedure, an instrument called a speculum is placed inside the vagina. The speculum expands once it has been inserted to provide easier access to the cervix. Next, the doctor will use a small spatula to scrape a small amount of mucus and tissue from the cervix. Once the sample is taken, the doctor can then remove the speculum.
The sample is sent to a laboratory where it is tested for the presence of cancerous cells and for abnormal cells that may develop into cancer. If the test results indicate that cancer has developed, the normal course of action is immediate treatment, which might include surgery and/or chemotherapy or radiation therapy. If the results indicate that pre-cancerous cells are present, these cells are removed during a minor surgical procedure. In addition, the woman might be recommended for more frequent future smear tests to ensure early detection of pre-cancerous cells that might develop. When test results are negative, the woman can resume a normal schedule for further smear tests.
Cervical Cancer: Prevention and Early Detection at the American Cancer Society (PDF document)
Pap Test Fact Sheet at the National Cancer Institute