This Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, gynaecologist Dr Seboleo Mojaki answers our top five questions about dreaded pap smear tests…

Although new cervical cancer screening recommendations in the US do not include an annual Pap smear test, it is still the standard way to screen for cervical cancer in South Africa.

“Cervical cancer is a serious disease, and it can only be detected with a pap smear. I know there are many hundreds of women who don’t go for regular pap smears because they are intimidated by the process, fearful of test results or simply embarrassed by their bodies,” says Dr Seboleo Mojaki, gynaecologist and obstetrician based at the Advanced Groenkloof day hospital.

“I often hear women say how petrified they are when they come for pap smears, and I can understand this wholeheartedly and know how uncomfortable it is. But it is so incredibly important to have this test done regularly as it is the best way to screen for cervical cancer. Early detection saves lives.”

Second most common cancer in SA women

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among South African women. One in 39 women in South Africa will be diagnosed with cervical cancer (NCR 2012).

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It is curable if detected and treated in the early stages which is why going for regular checkups is so important.

Dr Mojaki highlights the five most common questions asked about pap smears:

The scary thing about cervical cancer is that there are no symptoms until the advanced stage. If abnormal cells are picked up on your Pap smear, your doctor will be able to treat it, lowering your risk of developing cervical cancer.

1. When and how often should I have a pap smear?

The South African HPV Advisory Board recommends that a woman should begin having pap smears when she becomes sexually active or turns 21. Annual testing should be done until the age of 30 and thereafter every three years.

2. Why do I need a Pap smear?

The sample that is taken during your Pap smear is generally tested for HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) which is a virus transferred during sex. There are many different types of HPV, some of which are linked to cervical cancer. Doctors are able to spot HPV even before changes can be seen on the cervix. This means women at risk of cervical cancer can be identified much earlier and their health can be monitored closely.

The test also looks for changes in the cells of your cervix. Changes happen very slowly but can lead to serious problems like cervical cancer. The scary thing about cervical cancer is that there are no symptoms until the advanced stage. If abnormal cells are picked up on your Pap smear, your doctor will be able to treat it, lowering your risk of developing cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer survivor shares her story

3. How is a Pap smear taken?

Your doctor will ask you to lie back and will gently insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina, allowing her to view your cervix. A brush or spatula is then used to take a sample of cells from just inside the opening of your cervix. This sample is then sent for testing.

It is important to remember that you should not make your appointment when you are on your period as it may be more difficult to get a clear result on the test.

4. Does it hurt?

Pap smears do not hurt, they are just a little bit uncomfortable, and to be frank, awkward.

The discomfort lasts for a few short minutes as the test is quick to perform. It is important to try to relax as much as possible during your pap smear as this will reduce the discomfort. However, the few minutes of awkwardness are a small price to pay for health.

5. What happens after the Pap smear?

The laboratory will examine the sample and check for irregular cells. If there are irregular cells your doctor will give you a call and explain the next steps.

“I want women to know that they have nothing to be scared about. The reason why I became a gynaecologist is because of a need to help my fellow females. I want women to own their reproductive health and take the steps and precautions necessary for them to live a healthy and happy life. My message to women is that pap smears are a part of life. Stop skipping your annual checkups and make your health a priority,” says Dr Mojaki.

You can contact your nearest Advanced Health day hospital for assistance in finding a doctor to assist you or for more information on where to get an examination or screening.

Sources:https://www.cansa.org.za/womens-health/ and https://www.sasog.co.za/Guidelines/HPVAdvisory

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.