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Wellness for Women: the PAP test
by Rebecca Dirks, ND

Many women dread that time of year when they need to schedule for a pap test. For most of us, it’s “out of site, out of mind”. Cervical cancer, however, is very real and very deadly if not caught early. The Pap test, being the only screening tool available for cervical cancer, could be the test that saves your life.

Cervical cancer can strike any woman, but there are factors that can increase your risk. These risk factors include:

You have never had a pap test
Your age is between 25 and 55
You began having sexual intercourse before age 18
You have had multiple sex partners
You have had a sexually transmitted disease like HPV or genital warts
You smoke or have a history of smoking
You have HIV
Your mother was given DES (a drug given to prevent miscarriage) during pregnancy

The Pap test can detect changes in the cells of the cervix and vagina that can lead to cancer. A small brush or swab is used to remove a sample of cells from the area. The sample is placed on a slide or in a liquid that preserves the cells and sent to a lab to be screened. About 10% of all Pap tests show abnormal results. This doesn’t mean you have cancer. Pap tests also show reactive changes, microorganisms like bacteria or yeast and also precancerous lesions. In fact, less than one in ten abnormal pap tests means cancer.

Here are a few guidelines to ensure the best, most accurate results possible from your pap test:

Have your pap test done two weeks after your period starts
Don’t have sexual intercourse 24hours before the test
Don’t use vaginal contraceptives, douches, lubricants or medications for 72 hours prior to the pap test

A complete gynecological exam should include more than just a pap test. We also examine your vagina, cervix, uterus, rectum, ovaries and breasts. This is also the best time to learn about breast self exams, if you are unsure of the technique. A breast model, available at NCOH, is very helpful in learning how cancerous lumps may present. A mammogram may also be recommended if you are at high risk or over 40 years of age.

The question I still always get is “Do I really need to do this every year?” Not necessarily! A yearly gynecologic exam with Pap test is recommended if you are under age 18 and sexually active, any age with multiple sex partners, or have recently had an abnormal Pap test. According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, after three consecutive normal Pap tests and minimal risk factors, a gynecologic exam can be done every two to three years. If you do have multiple risk factors the Pap test is still recommended yearly. Stay on track with your health; take note of your risk factors, follow the guidelines listed to ensure accurate results, and talk to us about any concerns or questions you may have.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, please contact the Northwest Center for Optimal Health at (360) 651-9355.

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