5 Pap test facts women should know

January 2013

by Adelina Espat

pap, womenGetting a Pap test may not be the most fun part of your day. Yes, the exam is fairly simple. But, putting your legs in stirrups can be awkward and uncomfortable. 

Yet, this lifesaving exam is certainly worth the brief discomfort. That’s because the Pap test can find and remove abnormal cells before they turn into cervical cancer.

Andrea Milbourne, M.D., professor in MD Anderson’s Department of Gynecologic Oncology, shares five reasons why you shouldn’t put off scheduling your next exam.

1.  Cervical cancer symptoms are vague.

The warning signs for cervical cancer, like abnormal vaginal bleeding and discharges, are vague. And, many women mistake these symptoms for other common conditions.

So, your best chance to find and treat cervical cancer as early as possible is through regular Pap tests.

2. Sexual activity equals need for a Pap test.

The more sexually active you and your partner(s) are, the higher your chances of getting the human papillomavirus (also called HPV). This virus causes most cervical cancer cases. And, most sexually active women will be exposed to HPV at some point in their lives.

Unfortunately, condom use doesn’t provide 100% protection against HPV. So, if you’re sexually active, regular Pap tests are a must.

Luckily, today’s screening exams, like the liquid-based Pap test and high-risk HPV test, are even better at detecting abnormal cells. Plus, using these newer methods means you may not have to go in for a Pap test every year.

Use our women’s screening exams checklist to find out what tests you need and when.

3. The HPV vaccine is not a substitute for the Pap test.

pap, womenThe HPV vaccine protects women from some types of cervical cancer. But, getting this vaccine doesn’t mean you can stop regular Pap tests.

“Don’t let the HPV vaccine give you a false sense of security,” Milbourne says. “The vaccine doesn’t protect against all types of HPV or other sexually transmitted diseases. And, the vaccine doesn’t work unless you get all three doses.”

 4. You can afford a Pap test.

If your health insurance plan began after Sept 23, 2010, your Pap test is covered! That means you don’t have to make a copayment or meet your deductible if you use a network provider. This change is part of the recent Affordable Care Act.

Don’t fall into this group? Read our Health Care Reform article to find out what these changes mean for you.  

Are you uninsured or underinsured? Most cities and counties offer low-cost or free Pap tests. Find a screening location near you.

5. You may not be too old for a Pap test.

If you’re a sexually active woman age 65 or older, talk to your doctor about the Pap test. While most women age 65 or older do not need Pap tests, you may still need one if you’ve had treatment for a pre-cancer or cancer in the past 20 years. 

You also need to continue getting a Pap test if you’ve had a hysterectomy to treat pre-cancer or cancer cells in the past 20 years.

pap, womenIf you are 65 or older and not sexually active, you don’t need a Pap test anymore if you’ve had:

  • Three or more normal Pap tests in a row or one negative Pap and HPV t est
  • No abnormal Pap tests in the past 10 years or more
  • No treatment for an abnormal Pap test in the past 20 years

Encourage friends and family to get tested

Send a Pap test reminder encouraging women close to you to schedule their appointment. And, be sure to include a link to this article in your message.

Remind friends and family that they have the power to prevent cervical cancer with regular Pap tests!

Did you know you can get your Pap test along with a personalized prevention plan at MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center? Schedule an appointment today by calling 713-745-8040.