Everything you need to know about pap smears

The everyday exam isn't as scary as it seems

Pap smears should be a regular part of your medical care regime.
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Are you a person with a cervix who’s 21 or older and has been sexually active in the past? If you didn’t know already, you’re due for a pap smear.

The term ‘pap smear’ may sound strange, but it’s a routine procedure, also called a cervical exam, and avoiding it could mean missing some important warning signs for cervical cancer.

Here’s the lowdown on this life-saving exam and why you should put your sexual health first:

At Queen’s, you can easily make an appointment to get a pap smear on campus with Student Wellness Services. Most Ontario general health care providers also offer this service if you prefer to have your pap smear done off campus. When booking an appointment over the phone or in person with Student Wellness services, you’ll be asked if you prefer a female-identifying health care practitioner for your examination.

During your appointment, like with any general doctor’s appointment, you’ll be taken to a private examination room by a nurse for an initial consultation. You’ll then be left alone and asked to take off your bottom layer of clothes and either change into a paper gown or sit underneath a cover—at Student Wellness, you are asked to sit on the examination table under a paper cover.

Once the doctor or nurse practitioner who will be conducting your examination comes in, you’ll talk about your health history and any questions you have about the procedure. Once that’s out of the way, it’s time for the exam to start.

You’ll be asked to lie down on your back on the exam table with your knees bent and your heels in built-in supports called stirrups which stick out from the end of the table.

The examiner will then insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. The speculum, which looks a little like duck bills attached to a handle, holds the walls of your vagina apart so your doctor can easily see your cervix. The speculum could hurt slightly, particularly if you’re tense about the procedure, but if you feel more than an uncomfortable pressure, let the doctor or nurse know. Speculums come in different sizes and you can ask to use a smaller one, or you might just need an extra moment to breathe and try to relax.

Pap smears may be uncomfortable, but don’t feel pressured to stay silent if something seriously hurts. Your comfort should be the number one priority for any health care professional, regardless of the procedure.

Once the speculum is inserted and opened, the doctor will take samples of your cervical cells using a soft brush or a flat scraping device called a spatula. Once they’ve collected these samples, your exam is over—the doctor will remove the speculum and allow you to get dressed. It’s that simple.

The cervical cells removed during a pap smear then get tested for any abnormalities, like HPV (human papillomavirus) or precancerous cells. These cells can change and develop over time, which is why between the ages of 21 and 70, unless your doctor says otherwise, you should have a cervical exam once every three years.

Cervical cancer is mainly caused by HPV infections, which is exposed to an average of three out of four people in their lifetime, whether male or female. HPV vaccines do exist, and if you’re from Ontario, you may remember being vaccinated for it at school when you were in middle school. Otherwise, people in Ontario up to age 45 can ask for the vaccination from their health care provider.

Cancer is scary enough as is, and many parts of the body are hard to regularly screen for precancerous cells. Thankfully, preventing cervical cancer is incredibly easy in Ontario, and you shouldn’t take that for granted. If you qualify for regular cervical exams, get one.

It might feel embarrassing to think about letting a stranger examine a private area of your body, but those five minutes of awkwardness could save you from potentially developing cancer cells. If you feel nervous going into the exam, you can ask to bring a friend or family member into the room with you for support.

Pap smears shouldn’t be as daunting and taboo as they seem. They’re a regular part of your medical care regime, just like getting your teeth cleaned or eyes checked. They should be considered as routine as those procedures as well.

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