It’s 2019, but women still feel a bit squeamish talking about and getting their PAP test. We push it off as long as we can – letting our pelvic health take a back seat to the demands of our daily lives. Dr. Jessica Shepherd, gynecologist and women’s health expert, is here to give you a fresh perspective on why you need to schedule your PAP today to avoid one of the most preventable cancers out there that affect women today.
Q: What is the purpose of a PAP test?
A: A lot of women don’t know. I have heard all the hastily mumbled reply’s “from making sure everything is ok down there to checking for STDs”. The number one reason you get a PAP test is to screen for cervical cancer. In the early 70’s before the PAP test, cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women*. Today nearly 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, but the disease is preventable with the HPV vaccine and appropriate screening via PAP + HPV test. Cervical cancer can only be diagnosed on a cellular level – the Pap + HPV test looks at your HPV exposure as well as any abnormal pre-cancerous cells.
What is the link between HPV and Cervical Cancer?
The HPV virus is the leading cause of cervical cancer. It is a common virus that affects 14 million Americas who are sexually active and is the most common sexually transmitted disease. While most HPV infections will go away on their own, infections that don’t go away can cause certain types of cancer in men and women. HPV can cause:
- cancers of the cervix, vagina, and vulva in women;
- cancers of the penis in men; and
- cancers of the anus and back of the throat (including the base of the tongue and tonsils) in men and women.
HPV is transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact. You can get HPV by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus.
For women, making the HPV vaccine as part of your regular health check up is an easy way to prevent cervical cancer.
When should you get the HPV vaccine?
As this is a preventative vaccine, the recommended age is between 11 - 26. Ideally you are getting the vaccine before you become sexually active to drastically reduce the exposure to cervical cancer. There are three different shots that you need to take roughly 6 weeks between each other. We need to think about this vaccine as a preventative measure that support a women’s overall health vs. focussing on the fact that HPV is a sexually transmitted virus.
When should you get your first PAP?
The recommended age is 21. How often you get your Pap test varies based on your test results and personal preference. Some women like to get it every year, others do between 3-5. Below are the different options that your gynecologist would discuss with you:
- Scenario #1 Normal cells and negative HPV test get your next Pap test in 5 years.
- Scenario #2 Abnormal cells and negative HPV exposure; get another Pap test in a year.
- Scenario # 3 Normal cells but positive HPV exposure – get another Pap test in a year.
- Scenario # 4 Abnormal cells and positive HPV exposure – a coposcopy would be performed to assist with a diagnosis.
What tips do you have for women to take charge of their cervical health?
The two most important things you can do is get the HPV vaccine/Pap Test. I encourage women to schedule their Pap + HPV on their birthday – do a whole self care day – starting with your health followed by a fun day out with friends/spa or whatever you do to relax.
For more information about cervical health awareness month, there is a great check list by the National Cervical Cancer Coalition – http://www.nccc-online.org/images/pdfs/10ThingsHPV_CCAM.pdf