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What is a Cervical Cancer Screening?

Signs of cellular changes that might lead to cervical cancer are detected through cervical cancer screening, which for many women is part of a full pelvic exam. In cervical cancer screening, a sample of cells from the cervix is collected, and these cells are then examined under a microscope for signs of cancer. This test is also known as a Pap test, Pap smear or smear test, and it is a very important part of cervical cancer prevention. In addition to a Pap test, a woman might also undergo a test for the presence of human papillomavirus, the virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is an invasive cancer that can be difficult to treat effectively, because often the cancer is asymptomatic until after it has spread from the cervix to other parts of the body. This is balanced by the fact that it is also one of the easiest cancers to prevent. Regular cervical cancer screening is recommended for all women age 21 or older, regardless of sexual history, and for any woman who is sexually active, even if she is younger than 21. It is recommended that women undergo cervical cancer screening every one to three years, depending on their level of cancer risk. Generally, women can discontinue having Pap tests after the age of 65, providing their test results have been normal for the previous several years.

To prepare for cervical screening, a woman should not use tampons, douches, birth control cream, foam, jelly or any other vaginal product for two days before the test. In addition, vaginal intercourse should be avoided for the same period of time, and a woman should ensure that her test is scheduled for a date when she is not menstruating. This is important because menstrual blood, semen and any products applied in the vagina can interfere with sample collection or analysis.

During a cervical cancer screening exam, cells are collected from the cervix, a muscular ring that connects the vagina and the uterus. To collect the sample, a physician inserts a small tool called a speculum into the vagina. This expands the walls of the vagina and makes sample collection easier. When the speculum is in place, the physician will run a surgical swab over the cervix to retrieve cells for examination. This part of the exam might be uncomfortable but usually is not painful.

After the test sample has been collected, the cells are examined in a laboratory for the presence of abnormal cells. When abnormal cells are present, the condition is referred to as cervical dysplasia. This is a “pre-cancerous” condition, meaning it is not cancer but has the potential to become cancerous if not treated.

Results of cervical cancer screening tests are generally available within two to three weeks. In most cases, the results of the test are normal. If the results show signs of abnormal cells, the doctor who took the test sample will call to follow up and determine if any treatment is necessary. It is important to remember that in most cases, a positive test result is not caused by the presence of cancer. Often, the test indicates that cells have changed in a way that means cancer could develop; treatment to remove the cells can prevent cancer from developing.

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