Cervical cancer screenings (aka Pap tests or Pap smears) aren’t the most comfortable thing to talk about. (And frankly, the screenings themselves are sometimes a little uncomfortable, too.)
But for anyone with a cervix, I really need you to listen up. Because more than 14,000 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed every year in the U.S., and more than 4,000 people die from this disease annually.
Cervical cancer used to be much more deadly before the Pap test, also known as a Pap smear. Invented by Dr. George Papanicolaou in 1928, this procedure involves collecting cells from the cervix so they can be examined under the microscope for signs of cancer and pre-cancer. When the test is done as often as recommended, this cancer can usually be caught earlier when it’s easier to treat.
Ninety percent of cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), and the development of the HPV vaccine has also made a huge difference in lowering cervical cancer rates. However, a February 2022 analysis by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association found that HPV vaccination rates are disappointingly low.
But for now, let’s focus on the Pap test and making sure you’re up to date on this crucial preventive health measure.
How Often Should You Get a Pap Test?
If you’re between ages 21 and 29, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends getting a Pap test every three years. If you’re 30 or older, you can either:
- Continue getting a Pap test every three years
- Get tested for high-risk human papillomavirus (hrHPV) every five years
- Get both tests every five years
So, ask yourself these important questions: Do you remember when you had your last Pap test? Is it time to get a new one? Have you ever had one to begin with?
Barriers to Pap Screening
There are many reasons why people put off getting this test. Some people find the exam uncomfortable. Some may be embarrassed or ashamed about their own bodies. Some are terrified of finding out that they have cancer. Language, culture, and generational differences can also come into play.
Then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic caused many people to put off crucial health screenings, and those screenings still haven’t caught up to pre-pandemic levels. But now that vaccines and boosters are available, it’s really safe — and it’s really time — for you to catch up on any screenings you might have missed. Cancer prevention can’t wait!
If you’re overdue for a cervical cancer screening, let’s look at how we can make getting tested easier for you.
How a Pap Test is Done
If you’ve never had a Pap test, it may be helpful for you to understand how it works.
- Your health care provider will ask you to lie down.
- They will use a tool called a speculum to open your vagina so they can inspect your cervix.
- They will reach in with a small brush, gently collect some cells from the surface of your cervix, and send that sample to a lab.
- They will remove the speculum, and then you’re all finished.
It only takes a few minutes. It’s quick and easy, and when done correctly, it should be totally pain-free.
If that hasn’t been your experience, here is how you can help it go more smoothly next time.
Making the Test More Comfortable Physically
- Don’t get a Pap test during your period. It’s best to schedule it about two weeks before you’re expecting your period to start.
- Wear comfortable clothing that puts you at ease.
- Make sure your health care provider warms up the speculum to skin temperature before your exam.
- We come in all different shapes and sizes. Make sure your health care provider uses a speculum that’s the right size and shape for you.
- If there’s discomfort when the speculum is being inserted, it may help to change your position. For example, lie on your side instead of your back, or put your hands under your rear and press down. Don’t hesitate to try different positions.
- Take a deep breath first, then exhale while the speculum is being inserted. This will relax your muscles and decrease your discomfort.
Making the Test More Comfortable Emotionally
- Unfortunately, many people may feel a little embarrassed and ashamed about their bodies. But please know that your health care provider has done this test so often, there’s literally nothing they haven’t seen before. And there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
- If you’re not okay with having a male health care provider perform the test, it’s perfectly okay to insist on a female health care provider.
- Did you know that most primary care doctors (PCPs) can do a Pap test? If your PCP puts you at ease, there’s no need to see a stranger.
- Many victims of sexual assault or trauma find gynecological exams very triggering. If this applies to you, tell your health care provider in advance, so they’ll understand what you’re dealing with. Take as much time as you need, remember to breathe, and do whatever you must to feel safe — including bringing a friend or family member.
Having the right person perform your Pap test is really important to help you feel comfortable. Independence Blue Cross members can use our Find a Provider tool at ibx.com/providerfinder to locate a health care provider who meets all their criteria — speaks their language, reflects their gender preference, etc.
Thank you for letting me talk to you about something this personal. Now, go schedule that appointment, okay?