Pap tests can detects abnormalities in the cervix before cancer develops -- a key ability for a disease, such as cervical cancer, that has few visible symptoms.
Experts at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center say that women should be aware of six facts about the Pap test and cervical cancer:
- Cervical cancer was once a leading cause of death in American women. The U.S. cervical cancer death rate fell by 74 percent between 1955 and 1992. Still, the American Cancer Society estimates that about 3,870 women died from cervical cancer nationwide last year, and the disease remains a great threat in developing countries where the Pap test is not as affordable or readily available.
- Increased sexual activity increases the need for a Pap test. A woman's risk for getting the human papilloma virus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer, grows as sexual activity increases. Women not in monogamous relationships, even if they use condoms, should get regular Pap tests.
- The HPV vaccine does not replace the Pap test. The vaccine does help protect somewhat against cervical cancer, but it does not even stop all types of HPV. It also does not protect against other sexually transmitted diseases.
- Prepare before a Pap test. This includes avoiding sexual intercourse, douching or using vaginal medicines, spermicidal foams, creams or jellies for 48 hours before the test. And women who have heavier-than-usual menstrual flows the day of a Pap test should reschedule.
- Cervical cancer knows no age. Although getting cervical cancer after age 65 is rare, sexually active older women should still get an annual Pap test if they are not in a monogamous relationship.
- Affordable testing is available. Although the test can be expensive if a woman does not have insurance or access to affordable health care, some communities make free tests available to women who could not otherwise pay for one. The National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service (1-800-4-CANCER) can help women find a free or low-cost test in their area.
The U.S. National Cancer Institute has more about cervical cancer.