Spread your legs to maintain your health.
Having a vagina can be both a blessing and a curse.
Let’s face it, our vah-jay-jays are amazing little things, and there are a plethora of cool facts we keep finding out about them. But while they’re entertaining as hell, they’re not always a ball of fun. There’s periods, phantom sex pains and weird discharge to deal with just for starters, and, for many women, cervical cancer is a devastating reality.
The good news, however, is the illness can be easily detected and addressed through regular pap smear tests. These simple, routine exams only take a few minutes at your gyno or doctor’s office, and should be performed every couple of years, however an alarming number of women let them lapse in order to avoid a couple of minutes of discomfort.
Here are six reasons why everyone who has a vagina absolutely has to have a regular pap test. In fact, ring your doctor and book it in right now…
1. A pap test is the key to preventing cervical cancer
Cervical cancer kills more than 270,000 women a year, worldwide, which is an absolutely shocking statistic, given it’s almost completely preventable thanks to the combo of vaccinations and screening now readily available. Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, is the virus responsible for nearly all cases of cervical cancer. A pap test picks up changes to the cells of the cervix, allowing abnormalities to be treated before they even become cancerous.
Because of this, pap testing is actually the number one way to prevent cervical cancer.
2. You should never skip your pap test appointment
Around 43 per cent of women aren’t up to date with their pap tests. It’s super easy to forget to book the appointment, and given it isn’t exactly the most fun experience in the world, it’s not hard to understand why so many women delay theirs, but the consequences of foregoing a few minutes of discomfort can be absolutely devastating. According to the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation (ACCF), 90 per cent of women who die from cervical cancer have not had regular pap tests.
The current guidelines recommend all women who have ever been sexually active, between the ages of 18 to 70 have one every two years, even if you’ve had the vaccination or are not currently sexually active.
ACCF is working to reduce the number of women who miss their appointments by getting them to register for the free SMS reminder service ‘Get the Pap Text’. This nifty service lets you nominate a month when you receive a text reminding you to book an appointment, and it might just be one of the most important text messages you’ll get all year (yes, even more important than that guy finally getting back to you about getting drinks together). This text could essentially save your life.
3. You can contract the HPV virus through sex
HPV is really common; up to 80 per cent of people will contract it in their lifetime. There are over 100 different strains of the virus, and the easiest way to detect cells on the cervix caused by HPV, is through a pap test.
The HPV virus can also be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, so it’s possible to contract it through oral or genital contact alone, even if you’ve never had penetrative sex. Condoms don’t offer full protection from the virus either, so you absolutely must have your regular pap test to be 100 per cent certain you’re not currently affected by it.
While we’re talking about transmitted viruses, a pap test doesn’t actually screen for all sexually transmitted infections (STIs), a fact many women aren’t aware of. So on top of your regular pap test, having routine STI tests is a critical element of looking after your sexual health, especially if you’re having sex with multiple partners.
4. The pap test can be a little uncomfortable
Any woman who’s had a pap test knows how uncomfortable they can be. Mentally psyching yourself up to spread your legs wide and have a doctor inspect inside your vagina whilst taking a cervical scraping isn’t exactly high on anyone’s list of fun things to do.
But the good news is, the entire process shouldn’t last more than a few moments. If you’ve never had one before, or it’s been so long since your last test you’ve actually forgotten what’s involved, here’s what to expect: your doctor will ask you to go to the toilet and empty your bladder, and then remove your clothing from the waist down. After lying on your back, you’ll be asked to bend your knees and a speculum will be inserted into your vagina. This instrument is either metal or plastic, and holds the walls of the vagina open so the doctor can see the cervix clearly.
This is where things get a little awkward and uncomfortable, (though DW, not painful. If it hurts, you should ask your doctor to adjust the speculum). A very small ‘brush’ or spatula will be gently inserted and used to collect a swab from the cervix (often referred to as a ‘cervical scraping’), which is sent to a lab to test for abnormalities. And then you’re done. You might have some light spotting after the test, but again, this is no cause for alarm – a small amount of blood is quite typical after a pap smear. (That said, if you notice heavy bleeding or unusual discharge, you should head back to your doctor’s office for a follow-up.)
There are some ways you can make the test more comfortable for yourself as well, including staying relaxed and taking slow, deep breaths during the process, and using this handy ACCF Comfort Checklist with more tips and tricks for making it a cringe-free procedure.
5. Women all over the world are affected
Ninety per cent of the women who lose their lives to cervical cancer each year live in developing countries where screening and treatment is extremely limited, if at all existent. In Nepal, cervical cancer is the leading cause of death from cancer for women between the ages of 30 and 60.
The simple act of screening a woman who lives in a developing country even just once, reduces her chances of dying from cervical cancer by up to 40 per cent. And vaccinating a girl in these countries, reduces her chances of dying by a whopping 80 per cent. It costs as little as $30 to vaccinate a girl in Nepal, and you could help make that happen by donating here.
While Australia has the Get the Pap Text and letters sent to your home to remind you it’s time to have another test, these women aren’t as lucky. However, the ACCF has vaccinated over 140,000 girls in developing countries through its global outreach programs over the last few years to try to reduce the numbers of preventable deaths from cervical cancer across the globe.
6. Your results may come back abnormal…but don’t freak out
You should get the results of your test within two weeks of taking it, and will typically have to schedule a follow-up appointment or call your doctor for them. Sometimes you can be called back in because the test is unreadable or inconclusive, and further screening may be required, but this is nothing to be too worried about. In fact, around one in 10 women will receive an abnormal result from their test.
This could be due to a whole variety of reasons, including inflammation to an irritated cervix due to thrush or a bacterial infection temporarily affecting the test’s accuracy. You could also have low levels of the HPV virus without actually having cervical cancer. A small number of women get the virus and have it stay in the cervix. This usually just means you’ll need to have another test within 12 months instead of two years to check it eventually clears and doesn’t turn cancerous.
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