Ask the Expert: Why is it Important to Get a Pap Screening?

Dr. Simisola Caxton-Idowu says young women should begin regular Pap testing at age 21.

Pap smear

When was the last time you had a Pap smear? Seeing your gynecologist regularly is important to maintaining your overall health. Pap smears (also called Pap tests) aid in early detection of cervical cancer, which is of particular importance to African American women.

“The Pap smear is different from the annual pelvic exam,” says Simisola Caxton-Idowu, M.D., who specializes in Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN) with Ascension Medical Group. Dr. Caxton-Idowu says patients are sometimes confused between a Pap smear and a regular pelvic exam. The Pap smear allows detection of pre-cancerous cells. Although a speculum is used for both procedures, a Pap smear involves collecting cells from your cervix for examination, Dr. Caxton-Idowu explains.  

Why should you have this exam? “African American women are disproportionately affected by cervical cancer,” Dr. Caxton-Idowu says. Although cervical cancer rates have declined nationwide, health disparities are still present. “African American women with cervical cancer are more likely to die,” she adds.

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According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the death rate from cervical cancer in African American women is twice that of white women. One of the primary reasons cervical cancer affects African American women at higher rates is due to less frequent screenings, a University of Michigan School of Nursing study notes. Dr. Caxton-Idowu says that early detection of cancerous cells greatly improves the chances of successful treatment of cervical cancer.

“If you are seen regularly by a physician, and having Pap smears, hopefully cervical cancer is detected early,” Dr. Caxton-Idowu says. ACS also notes that women with early cervical cancers usually have no symptoms. Symptoms often do not begin until the cancer becomes larger and grows into nearby tissue.

When this happens, some of the most common symptoms are abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as bleeding after vaginal sex, bleeding after menopause, bleeding and spotting between periods, or having (menstrual) periods that are longer or heavier than usual. Pain during sex is another symptom that needs to be investigated.

Recommendations for Pap tests have changed over the years. “You don’t need a Pap every year, unless you have had an abnormal result,” Dr. Caxton-Idowu says. Dr. Caxton-Idowu recommends that young women begin regular Pap testing at age 21, and between ages 21 to 30, women should have a Pap smear every three years.

Women ages 30 to 65 years old who have had normal Pap exams can switch to screening with a combination of Pap smears and human papillomavirus (HPV) testing every five years. “Depending on your history, we may stop screening at age 65,” she says, emphasizing that you must have had adequate prior screening with no abnormal results before you can stop Pap screening. 

“Come in and have a discussion with your physician about the importance of this screening,” Dr. Caxton-Idowu says. “A well-informed patient is able to make better decisions. So reach out and make sure you have regular OB/GYN visits every year.”

Get more health information and find a doctor near you by visiting ascension.org/michigan or calling 866-501-DOCS (3627).

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