One of the most common cancer that affects women is cervical cancer. In fact, cervical cancer is the leading cancer in Indian women. According to estimates published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), approximately 1,32,000 new cases of cervical cancer are reported annually in India alone. A PAP Smear Screening, also known as a PAP test, is a medical procedure used to detect cervical cancer. Here’s all you need to know about it.
1. What can a PAP Smear detect?
A PAP smear detects whether or not you have cervical cancer. The test can also detect any changes within your cells that indicate the possibility of developing cancer in the future. More often than not, a PAP test is also used to detect the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which is a common sexually transmitted disease that leads to cervical cancer. This is why, when most health care professionals talk about when should you get a PAP smear, many suggest that the right time to start is when you are sexually active. Even if you are not sexually active, many doctors believe that 21 is the right age to begin. Of course, you must consult with your own doctor to determine the same. Your family history also plays a large role in how vigilant you need to be about certain diseases.
2. What are the risk factors for HPV or cervical cancer?
Your doctor will evaluate your medical history to determine whether you should get PAP tests more frequently than most women should. While some people can get away with being tested once a year, others cannot afford to do so. Some of the risk factors for HPV include the following:
- A diagnosis for cervical cancer, or PAP smear results that showed cells that were precancerous.
- Any weakness in your immune system resulting from surgery, organ transplant, chronic use of corticosteroid, or chemotherapy.
- An HIV infection.
- Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), which is an estrogen medicine, before birth.
3. Sexual activity and HPV
There are different subtypes or serotypes of HPV. HPV 16 and HPV 18 are found in nearly 75% of cervical cancer cases. This is why it is important to understand how this virus is transmitted. According to estimates published in the NCBI, almost 80% of women have some form of HPV by the time they reach 50 years of age. The virus itself tends to be asymptomatic, with the exception of genital warts.
Interestingly, one cannot necessarily prevent the transfer of this STD through traditional contraceptive methods such as condoms. This is because studies on whether condoms prevent HPV from being transmitted are inconclusive.
Therefore, arguably, one can only prevent HPV through abstinence or having a single monogamous relationship throughout your life. The purpose of stating these facts is to drill home the fact that everyone is highly susceptible to HPV, which is why it is essential to get a PAP smear screening on a regular basis.
4. Are there any vaccines for HPV?
HPV vaccines are available in India and are generally administered to girls between the ages 9-11 (along with the relevant booster shots). However, these vaccines are not available to everyone in the country. As the affordability and accessibility of the same are not what they should be, women in India remain at risk for developing cervical cancer. In terms of the PAP smear screening, the awareness of the necessity of regular tests is quite low too. As a result, post women do not end up being tested regularly, if at all.
5. When should you schedule a PAP smear test procedure?
To begin your journey towards better reproductive health, you must first schedule an appointment with your gynaecologist. The doctor will ask you a few routine questions regarding your medical history and your family’s medical history. If you do not present any risk factors or red flags, you will be asked to schedule your PAP smear test procedure at the earliest available date. Based on the results, you may be told to get the test on a bi-annual or annual basis. The PAP smear test procedure is a quick and painless one. Therefore, you can schedule one at your leisure without worrying too much about the time it takes.