I might be generalizing, but if you are a young South Asian woman, you have likely been given this pep talk at some awkward teen or preteen point in your life:
“Boys are bad, don’t touch boys.”
You have been told to abide by this one unbreakable rule, perhaps, well into your mid-20’s. You might see the tune change if you actually continued to follow this advice into your 30s. Now, your parents indirectly admit that they lied and would you please and pretty please marry and start having babies with a man as soon as possible.
Every woman should take care of her reproductive health and this does not have to be anyone’s business but yours. A big part of that, and usually the first step, is getting a Pap smear. Eek! I know.
So, as an ob-gyn myself, I compiled some facts that may help you navigate the gynecologists office visit if it’s your first time. And if you’re already at pro level, read on and you might pick up something new as well.
There are no stupid questions here, knowledge is power, so here we go.
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What is a Pap smear?
It’s a collection of cells taken from the cervix, which can help prevent and detect cervical cancer.
What is a cervix?
It’s okay if you don’t know. Only women have this body part and it can easily be examined during your annual gynecology visit by your doctor. This is the part that dilates in pregnancy to allow a baby to deliver out of the womb.
How can a cervix get cancer?
We now know more than 99 percent of cancers of the cervix are caused by one virus: the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).
I think we’ve all heard this name in passing and many myths regularly circulate about it so here are some facts about HPV:
How can I get HPV?
Well, here’s the bad news. Practically all humans already have HPV. The warts you see on your hands and feet sometimes are also from a type, or strain, of HPV. The HPV found in the cervix is a different strain. It can get there from sexual activity. You know, the one thing you were told that you’re not allowed to do until you get married (exaggerated eye roll).
So, why doesn’t everyone having sex have HPV or cervical cancer?
Here’s some good news: your immune system will fight off HPV so it is possible that the day of your Pap smear, it may not be detected because your body happened to be fighting it off. You would likely get a normal Pap result in this case.
But, if you have a “high risk” strain of HPV, a stubborn subtype, that is resisting your immune system’s effort to kick it out, then you would get the unsettling news that you have an abnormal Pap smear.
There is also the scenario of a normal Pap but abnormal HPV result (known in medical terms as a ‘Positive HPV result, Negative Pap smear’). In this case, it’s a bit of a gray area, and your doctor would guide you on the best way to manage this.
If I have an abnormal pap smear, does that mean I have cancer?
NOPE. It can mean that you either have a low-risk or high-risk chance of possibly getting cancer someday if the situation isn’t dealt with as soon as possible. Your doctor would then recommend performing a colposcopy to examine the cervix more closely. This could lead to saving your life by removing the bad areas in a procedure called a LEEP.
Often times, a LEEP is not needed after a colposcopy. Instead, you can be told that everything is fine, or that samples that were taken are low-risk strain of HPV. In that case, you would just need to continue testing more frequently.
If I have a normal Pap, then what?
Based on the latest guidelines, you can actually get a Pap every three years in your 20s and every three to five years in your 30s and beyond. This is a generalization for those with normal Pap results. Much more is involved in deciding this and you should listen to your doctor’s advice.
However, this guideline does not take the place of your doctor’s judgement on how to protect you best.
Your gynecology visit can entail additional testing to help you have a healthy reproductive system including testing for infections. If undetected or untreated, infections can harm your ability to have children in the future. Make that appointment ladies!
For more on the topic of Pap smears, tune in anytime to Dr. Brahmbhatt’s discussion on wsradio.com.
If you have a #WomensHealth piece you would like to submit, please email Brown Girl editor-at-large Atiya Hasan at Atiya.Hasan@BrownGirlMagazine.com.
Dr. Bhoomi Brahmbhatt is founder of BabyBhoom.com, a women’s health education website, which shares her talent for writing and her passion for empowering women. She works as a board certified ob-gyn in private practice. When not working, she can be found running her four-and-two-year-old to their various classes, including dance, swim, yoga, or sneaking away for a night out with her husband and friends. She has a Bachelor’s of Science in Chemistry and her Doctor of Medicine degree from George Washington University and finished her ob-gyn residency at UC Davis.