Geisinger Announces Importance of Pap Smears for Cervical Cancer Awareness Month

Routine Pap smears are one of the best (and simplest) ways to prevent and detect cervical cancer.
Scott C. Purinton, MD, PhD, chief of gynecologic oncology at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville.

Whether it’s your first or fifth time, it’s completely normal to feel nervous or have questions before a Pap smear. But knowing what to expect can help put your mind at ease before your appointment.

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. Staying up to date on your Pap smears is a big part of that.

Here’s what to know about this valuable procedure.

A Pap smear, or Pap test, checks for changes in your cervical and vaginal cells that could develop into cancer over time.

One of the biggest advantages of these tests is their ability to detect abnormal cells before they even become cancerous. This leads to earlier treatment and better outcomes.

During the procedure, your healthcare provider gently scrapes cells from your cervix. These cells are examined for changes and can also be tested for human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection that can cause cervical cancer.

While these screenings can be a little uncomfortable and awkward, they should never cause pain.

How often you need a Pap smear depends on your age and health history. The guidelines are:

  • Women ages 21 – 29: You should have a Pap smear every three years.
  • Women ages 30 – 65: Discuss the following options with your doctor:
    • Have both a Pap smear and an HPV test every 5 years
    • Have only a Pap smear every 3 years
    • Have only an HPV test every 5 years
  • Women older than 65: You might no longer need to be screened, depending on your health history and doctor’s recommendation.

Whether you’re sexually active or not, you still need a Pap smear. While most cervical cancers are caused by HPV (which is sexually transmitted), this isn’t the case for all cancers. 

Pap smears don’t screen for STIs like HPV, gonorrhea or chlamydia. Instead, they test for any abnormal cell changes that could lead to cervical cancer. If you want additional testing for STIs, ask your healthcare provider during your appointment.

A Pap smear is different from a pelvic exam but you should have both.

A pelvic exam is typically performed at your annual well-woman visit with your healthcare provider. During this exam, they’ll check your vulva, vagina, cervix, ovaries, uterus, rectum and pelvis for any abnormalities.

A Pap smear specifically screens for precancerous changes. If you’re due for one, you can get a Pap smear during your annual pelvic exam.

Depending on how heavy your flow is, your period may affect the results of your Pap smear.

A lot of blood can make your sample harder to read, which could produce inaccurate results. This shouldn’t be an issue if your flow is lighter.

The best thing you can do is call your provider’s office and talk about your options. There’s no reason to avoid it while on your period unless you’re having the exam because of abnormal discharge or another concern. 

P.S. Your period does not bother your healthcare provider.

Cervical cancer is preventable — and receiving regular Pap tests is the best way to prevent it.

Remind your mom, sisters, friends — every woman in your life — to schedule their appointment (especially if it’s been a few years).

And if you still have questions, don’t be afraid to ask your provider. There are no bad questions when it comes to your health. We want you to be open and honest so we can help you achieve your best health. 

For the latest health and wellness tips and advice, visit geisinger.org/balance.