A Pap test (also called pap smear), or Papanicolaou test, is the best way to detect cervical cancer. The test is a microscopic examination of cervical cells, usually taken during a yearly pelvic exam as part of Well Woman Care.
During a Pap test, the cells are obtained from the cervix using a wooden scraper or small cervical brush or broom, after a speculum has been inserted to open the vagina and produce a clear image of the vaginal walls.
Most Pap test results are negative, or normal, meaning that the cervix looks healthy.
However, sometimes the results are abnormal. This could mean a variety of things:
- Cells are abnormal, but not cancerous. The patient will return for a follow-up exam to determine this.
- The cervix is infected. Various infections, such as yeast, Chlamydia or gonorrhea, can cause the cervix cells to look inflamed.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV). There are many kinds of HPV, some of which cause genital warts, others which are associated with cervical cancer.
If an infection is present, it should be dealt with immediately, and another Pap test should be performed in 2-3 months, because the infection may have been covering signs of cervical cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends that a woman should have a pelvic exam, including a Pap smear, yearly, in order to determine any changes in organ placement or cells. Early detection is the best defense against cancer, especially since some women will not have any symptoms associated with it.