The Pap Smear is a test for abnormal changes in the cervix that could signal cervical cancer. Many of us put off having the test, believing we don't need it or fearing it will hurt. However, the Department of Health recommends that all sexually active women over the age of 18 have a Pap smear every two years. They say regular checks could prevent over 90% of the 1000 cervical cancers diagnosed in Australia each year.
During a Pap test, a doctor takes a small number of cells from the cervix with a spatula or brush. The cells are then placed in a glass slide, sealed with a preservative and sent to a laboratory for testing. The results are usually sent back to the doctor within a week. The procedure can be uncomfortable, but is rarely painful.
The good news is that around 91% of Pap smear test results are normal. However, the Pap test is not always 100% effective so women with unusual symptoms, such as unexpected bleeding, should see their doctor even if their last test was negative.
If a Pap smear does detect an abnormality, the next step will depend on whether it is considered low or high grade. If it's low grade, you may be asked to come back in six months for another Pap smear as many changes do return to normal. High grade cases will require more immediate treatment. In some cases, the pathology lab will report that the test result is "unsatisfactory" which usually means insufficient cells were taken for a test to be done. In such cases, the doctor will usually repeat the test.
For more information, contact your doctor or the Cervical Screening Program national help-line on 13 15 56.