A Pap smear is a screening test for skin cancer inside the vagina and on the cervix. The cervix is the very bottom of the uterus. You can get a better idea of how your female parts are situated inside by watching our video, “Getting to know yourself: Anatomy 101".
“Pap smear” comes from the man who invented them, Georgios Papanikolau. “Smear” comes from the way doctors did the test – but with new technology, it is not really ‘smeared’ anywhere (like peanut butter), but just swished in a jar of special liquid. If you think about frosting a cake, doctors use a plastic disposable tool that rubs across your cervix in a similar way. Just a light touch collects some of the outer skin cells and they are swished into a jar with special fluid to be reviewed by a pathologist. Pathologists are people who are trained to look at the individual cells and decide whether there are any funny looking changes.
A pap smear is a screening test. It is a preliminary test that looks for signals that you might need more testing. If your test is positive, it does not mean you have cancer, but your pap smear triggered the need for more testing. A negative test only means that you did not happen to trigger any signals for more testing – so even with a negative test, you still have to have follow up pap smears, and the testing times are determined by national panels of doctors.
We go to the doctor to make sure we are healthy – so having a test result that tells us you need more testing, or even treatment, should be a positive experience. You actually did something and because of that, you may have saved yourself from developing cancer.
If your pap smear is abnormal, you may need a colposcopy. <Link to colposcopy page>