When you turn 21, the first thing you’ll probably be thinking about is running off to Vegas (you’re legal now!) – the last item on your mind would be running off to your doctor. Yet, even if you haven’t had sexual contact at that point, or it hasn’t been the recommended three years since your first sexual contact, that’s when you should be scheduling a Pap test. And if you’re a teenage girl, this isn’t likely what you’re going to be looking forward to about the three-year anniversary of your “first time”, either, if you’ve even been counting towards that point. I hadn’t been. I was nonchalantly sitting in my doctor’s office one March day, renewing a prescription, when she reminded me that I’d have to come in for a Pap test sometime soon, and I should book it with the front desk when I leave.
It was two months later that I walked into an office with slightly clammy hands, wondering if I really should have worn these jeans or if it would have been a better idea to wear a skirt, and how painful this was going to be, really, because my doctor had reassured me, but come on, let’s be serious now, you’re sticking something – what are they sticking in you? I told myself not to panic, and then the doctor walked in, and I did, a little bit. However, you don’t have to. I promise.
Essentially, here’s the main point: as difficult as it is, you need to relax. You’ll need to remove any fabric on the lower half of your body (take off your pants and underwear, lift up a skirt or dress above your hips) and place your feet in stirrups so that they’re supported apart at a level slightly above hip level. What the doctor is inserting into you is a lubricated speculum, which is about an inch wide and a few inches long when inserted, but can open to allow the doctor to see your vagina and cervix and take swabs. The cervix is at the top of your vagina, and thus, if the doctor doesn’t use this tool, they can’t see the cervix or take the necessary sample to test for unusual cell growths. It won’t necessarily be comfortable when they open it, but if you try to relax as much as you can, it shouldn’t be painful. You can always ask your doctor or nurse to stop if you feel too much pain. Once they’ve opened the speculum, they’ll use what looks like a long Q-tip to clean the area and a small brush to take a sample from your cervix, which basically consists of them rubbing the end against the tissue so that several cells will be gathered onto whatever they’re using to collect. It’ll feel strange, but again, this shouldn’t be outright painful. If it is, let your doctor know.
And that should be pretty much it for the process of a Pap test. It won’t take longer than a few minutes for the actual process, though the appointment is longer to allow for set-up time and the dressing and undressing, as well as any discussion that you wish to have with the doctor about the process.
Most teenagers have no idea that anyone with a vagina needs to go in for a Pap smear once they’ve been sexually active for three years, or by the time they’re 21. (*Note that these are the current [in Jan 2013] guidelines as set by the BC Cancer Agency and is subject to change*) It’s just not something that comes up in our daily lives, which, to be honest, makes it even more important that we remember to book one. Even if you’ve had the HPV vaccine, it only protects against two of the most common strains likely to cause cervical cancer; it doesn’t protect you against everything. There’s probably a brochure available at your doctor’s office explaining more of the technical side, and if not, there’s plenty of information available online, or at Island Sexual Health, or at your local clinic. Simply put, it’s often enough to go get checked out – so do it!