23/01/2018 14:34 SAST | Updated 23/01/2018 15:24 SAST

Don't Delay Your Pap Smear – It Could Literally Save Your Life

Fewer than 20 percent of South African women have ever gone for the test.

Catherine Lane

A new international study recently found that young women are avoiding pap smear tests because they're ashamed of their bodies. The respondents said the awkwardness arose from both their general body image and the appearance and smell of their vaginas.

In South Africa,fewer than 20 percent of the country's women have ever had a pap smear, according to the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA).

Yet cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in South African women, the organisation points out.

In a recent local study on the attitudes of women towards pap-smear testing, most of them admitted to rarely hearing others talking about it in their respective communities. Others felt it was still heavily stigmatised, and many discussed the negative association of being seen at the clinic and being assumed by the community to be HIV-positive.

In case you were also still wondering, or have postponed it over and over, we've compiled a basic what-to-expect guide when going for a pap smear, including information about how much it costs.

Why it's so important
Having regular pap smears can detect abnormal cells in the cervix that could develop into cervical cancer. When abnormal cells are identified and removed, in many cases it is prior to cancer cells actually developing. Early diagnosis and treatment of precancerous lesions prevents up to 80 percent of cervical cancers.

A pap smear will also screen for Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).

When should I take the test?

Once you're 21 or sexually active (whichever happens first), you should have a pap smear every two years. After 30, if you've had three consecutive negative results, you can cut down to a smear only once every three years.

What can I expect during the test?

During the pelvic exam, the healthcare practitioner will ask you to lie back and will gently insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina, so your cervix can be viewed. Cells will then be scraped off the lining of the cervix. They will be placed on a microscope slide and sent for laboratory analysis. The process can be uncomfortable, but it is painless and normally takes only a few minutes.

Where can I test and does it cost me money?

Women making use of public-sector screening services are entitled to three free pap smears per lifetime, starting at the age of 30 years or older, with a 10-year interval between each smear. Some organisations like Right To Care and the Pink Drive periodically offer free pap smear tests.

Other healthcare facilities can cost anything from R200 upwards.

What do my results mean?

A healthy result is negative – where all cells look normal when viewed under a microscope, according to Mediclinic. Abnormal cells seen on the microscope slide would indicate a positive test, and you may have to undergo further tests to confirm a diagnosis.