What Women over 50 Need to Know about Pap Tests

cervical cancer screening
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When was the last time Pap tests came up in conversation? While it’s not always the most comfortable subject to broach with friends, it’s one that’s important to discuss.

Cervical cancer is the 12th most common cancer for women. A Pap test can see what you can’t. It can detect early signs of cervical cancer before symptoms start. It looks for pre-cancerous cell changes in the cervix that could lead to cervical cancer. Testing is covered by Ontario’s provincial health plan. And yet over 1 million women in Ontario are overdue for a pap test.

Think you’re not at risk? Don’t believe the common misconceptions. Despite what you may have heard, regular testing is still necessary, even for women who are no longer sexually active, have only one partner, are in a same-sex relationship, have been through menopause, or have no history of cervical cancer in their family. The Ontario Cervical Screening Program recommends that women who are or ever have been sexually active should be tested every three years beginning at the age of 21 until age 69.

Whether you’ve yet to go for your first Pap test or are overdue for your pap, there can still be some confusion about what the test actually does. The test for cervical cancer is the Papanicolaou test, or as you know it, the Pap. Your doctor or nurse practitioner will gently take a few cells from your cervix and send these to a laboratory to be examined under a microscope. In addition, some local public health units and community health centres can also complete the test.

At the lab, when abnormal cells are identified in a Pap test, it does not mean you have cervical cancer. But you will need to talk to your doctor about next steps.

Treating abnormal cells is much easier and more likely to be successful than treating cancer after it develops. Abnormal cells will not cause any symptoms and are not visible to your doctor or nurse practitioner at the time they are doing the test, so having a pap test every 3 years is important even if you feel well.

The best part is that cervical cancer is almost 100% preventable with regular testing and appropriate follow up.

To help you stay on top of when to schedule your Pap, the Ontario Cervical Screening Program sends letters to Ontario women who should have the test, reminding them when it’s time for their Pap and advising on next steps based on the test results.

In short, if you are a woman between ages 21-69 who is or has ever been sexually active, you should have Pap tests every three years. While cervical cancer continues to impact Ontario women; regular testing can reduce your risk.

Cervical cancer can be prevented. Take charge of your health—book your Pap test today.