have access to the most successful cancer screening test, the Pap
test. According to the American Cancer Society, the number of
cervical cancer deaths decreased by 74 percent between 1955 and
1992, largely as a result of using the Pap test. With annual Pap
tests, more than 90 percent of cervical cancer cases can be
Unfortunately, not all women
take advantage of this screening method. In a recent survey
conducted by the Gallup Organization for the College of American
Pathologists, only 64 percent of women over the age of 18 reported
having had a Pap test within the past year.
"Cervical cancer is
easily preventable with regular Pap tests," says John R. van
Nagell Jr., M.D., chief of gynecologic oncology, and professor of
obstetrics and gynecology, University of Kentucky College of
Before cervical cancer
develops, some cells begin to change from normal to precancerous.
The Pap test can detect these very early changes in cervical
cells, which can then be treated before they become cancerous.
The Pap test is particularly
important because when caught at the precancerous or very early
cancer stage, cervical cancer is nearly 100 percent curable. Also,
women usually do not have symptoms during the precancer and early
cancer stages. Symptoms such as light bleeding between menstrual
periods, bleeding after intercourse, or pain during intercourse
may be due to cervical cancer. A woman with these symptoms should
consult her physician immediately; however, these symptoms may
also be due to several other conditions as well as cervical
All women who are over the age
of 18 or who are sexually active should have a Pap test annually.
Women who are past menopause, have had a hysterectomy, or
currently are not sexually active still should have a Pap test
The best time to have a Pap
test is during the two weeks after the end of the menstrual
period. To obtain a good sample, women should refrain from sexual
activity and using douches or lubricants 48 hours before the exam.
A Pap test most often is done
at the same time as a pelvic examination. Your physician
painlessly scrapes cells from the surface of the cervix using a
small, special brush. The cervical cells are then placed on a
glass slide and sent to a laboratory. The cells are stained at the
laboratory and examined by trained cytotechnologists. If any
irregularity is discovered, a pathologist re-examines the sample
and gives a final diagnosis.
If an abnormal Pap smear
result is obtained, your physician will obtain tissue biopsies
from the cervix for further study by a pathologist to determine
whether the changes are precancerous (a condition called cervical
intraepithelial neoplasia, or CIN).
"The important thing for
women to remember is, with annual Pap smear screening, the chance
of dying from cervical cancer is virtually nonexistent," van