As awkward (and often uncomfortable) as pap smears can be, they're vitally important. These exams check for cervical cancer, which typically doesn't otherwise show many symptoms in its early stages. It literally could save your life, which is why OB/GYN Staci Tanouye, MD, is on a mission to change how people feel about these exams. "[A pap smear] can seem very intimidating, but it only takes about 10 seconds, and a good doc can walk you through it gently and quickly," Dr. Tanouye shared on Instagram recently.
To further put people's minds at ease, she shared a video showing exactly how it's done from the doctor's perspective—with the help of a medical model of the female reproductive system.
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To recap the step-by-step of what goes down during a pap smear: The OB/GYN inserts a speculum to help open the vagina, then they insert a metal spatula to gently scrape the outer cervix (the skin barrier that separates the vaginal canal from the uterus) to collect cells for testing. Then, the spatula is removed, and the OB/GYN inserts a small spoolie-style brush to go inside the cervix and collect cells from the inner part of the organ. Both cell samples are taken to a lab and tested to see if there are precancerous or cancerous cells.
When I reached out to Dr. Tanouye for more intel on pap smears, she told me the biggest misconception people have about them was that they screen for abnormalities in the uterus or ovaries. "Pap smears are strictly screening for precancerous and cancerous changes of the cervix," she says. "We currently don't have any recommended or good screening methods for either uterine or ovarian cancers."
Dr. Tanouye emphasizes that pap smears are important because of their role in preventing cervical cancer. "On average, cervical cancer takes around 10 to 15 years to develop," she says. "If you get your pap smears as recommended, we will detect precancerous changes before they ever turn into cancer."
If you've never had a pap smear before, Dr. Tanouye says it's natural to wonder what the heck it will feel like. Her answer? Mild cramp-y discomfort—not exactly pleasant, but not horrendous either.
In terms of how often you should be booking an appointment to get a pap smear, Dr. Tanouye says the current guidelines recommend them once every three to five years—as long as your results don't show any abnormalities, according to the American Cancer Society. "In the U.S., it’s recommended for everyone with a cervix age 21 and older, regardless of if they have been sexually active or not," she adds.
To recap Dr. Tanouye's insights, pap smears are important because they help prevent cervical cancer, don't hurt all that much, and only take a few minutes. And health insurance is required to cover them.
Clearly getting one regularly is a big overall win. Actually it's more than that: It's life-saving.
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