Obstetrics and Gynaecology Specialist fromOMGA (Overseas Medical Graduates of Australia) and Royal Melbourne Hospital Resident, Dr Varun Sharma, from ASHA (Australian South -Asian Health Care Association) discuss Pap Smears.
Most of the time when Doctors ask about Pap Smears, it is often met with awkwardness and a generally uneasiness – it is one of those things that you should do, but never get around to!It is not something you really want to think about, there are always about a million things that take priority, and most importantly, and who has the time?
Fortunately, it is a quick test, and most of the time it only needs to be done every 2 years.
The Pap smear was first discovered in 1928 by Dr Papanicolaou, when he found that cells in the cervix (the neck of the womb) change in appearance before turning into Cervical Cancer.
As a test, it revolutionised the approach to Cervical Cancer.Cervical cancer is often asymptomatic, and symptoms such as vaginal bleeding, discharge and pelvic pain generally develop in later stages of the cancer. Luckily, the Pap smear can pick up to 90% of cervical cancer in its initial stages, leading to early treatment.
Cervical cancer is the 2nd leading cause of cancer deaths for women worldwide, and is caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) virus, which is spread from skin to skin contact, especially from genital skin. 4 out of 5 women will have it at some stage in their life, but it is generally cleared in a few months. Sometimes, the virus will stay, and can cause damage to cells that leads to cervical cancer.
There is no way of detecting whether the virus has been cleared, but the Pap smear is very good at picking up if the HPV vaccine is starting to cause damage to the cervical cells.
Because this virus is spread from skin to skin contact, all women above the age of 18 who have had sex at any point in their life should have Pap Smears every 2 years. It is important to continue this after menopause, because 50% of cases occur above the age of 50. It can be stopped if you have had two negative tests after the age of 70, but only after discussion with your doctor.
The HPV Vaccine protects against 70% of the different types of HPV, which is why it is also important that all young girls are vaccinated with it as part of their school vaccination program.
The Pap smear itself is easy and quick, and can be done at your GP clinic or at a Women’s Health clinic. It involves collecting cells from the cervix using a brush, smearing them onto a slide, and then sending it to a lab. The lab will send results to your Doctor, who will then be able to discuss changes with you. In case it is abnormal you must see a gynaecologist who is expert in colposcopy.
We all know it is uncomfortable and not a topic that anyone would want to think about, but it is an easy test that is great at preventing Cervical Cancer.