Pop quiz – which of the following statements are true?

  1. You need to start getting a Pap test (also known as Pap smear) every 3 years starting at the age of 21 if you have ever had any sexual skin-to-skin contact.
  2. You need get a Pap test regularly, usually every 2 to 3 years after you have had 3 or more "normal" Pap tests in a row.
  3. Getting regular pap tests is the best thing you can do to avoid cervical cancer, which is mainly caused by the transfer of the human papillomavirus (HPV) during sexual intercourse or any sexual act that involves touching.

Okay, so that was easy: all three are correct. But you might be surprised to know that many Canadian women in their teens and early 20s are unaware of the importance of the Pap test in detecting cervical cancer.

Lesson 1: A Pap test can save your life.

During the simple procedure, your doctor uses a plastic or metal instrument called a speculum to take a small sample of cells from your cervix while you are lying down (we're talking seconds – a few deep breathes will distract you from the slight discomfort). You shouldn't feel pain or extreme discomfort, so let your doctor know if you do. This sample is sent to a lab that looks for cell changes or abnormalities. Problems can be spotted before they turn into cancer, which can be caught early and more easily treated.

Lesson 2: Don't skip the Pap.

This isn't the same as skipping class – you can't make up for a missed diagnosis. Doctors want you to get tested every 3 years starting at the age of 21. Most cases of HPV infection (remember it's the main culprit of cervical cancer) clear up on their own in a few years. However, for a small number of women, certain types of HPV infection may stick around longer and can lead to cancer. Your best bet is to catch abnormal cells caused by HPV early on.

Lesson 3: Don't panic if you get an "abnormal" result.

An abnormal Pap result does not mean you have cancer. About 4 to 5 million Pap tests are done every year in Canada and only 8% get an abnormal result, and only a fraction of those (1,400) are cancer. Abnormal Pap results means there is a change in the cells of the cervix. Changes in the cells could be a result of a vaginal infection, a sexually transmitted infection (STI), HPV (which is a specific type of STI), or hormone level changes, among other causes. Remember: most cervical cancers take 10 years to develop. And many cervical abnormalities return to normal within 1 to 2 years. Discuss your results with your doctor, who will let you know if further tests, such as an HPV or STI test, are needed.