PAP Tests: Why Every Woman Needs to Get Them

Ah, sexual health. It was a cringe-worthy topic in high school: the one you sniggered at while sitting in the back of the classroom, or looked on at with horrified eyes if you sat in the front. Alas, the time to awkwardly laugh away the topic is behind us. As adults, it is now our job to take care of our own bodies, and for us ladies out there, one part of that means getting a PAP test. 

A good number of women, however, never really learned what a PAP actually is, or why it is important. Maybe you went to a religious school where it was never taught, or your parents pulled you out of sex-ed classes, or you have forgotten what you briefly touched on in class over the years. No matter the circumstances, it is important for women to know their bodies and get tested to make sure there is nothing untoward going on. 

For those who need a refresher, a PAP test is a test that removes a small swab of cells from the cervix. In order to get at these cells, a speculum is inserted into the vagina so that the vaginal walls are separated and the doctor or gynaecologist can take a sample. It isn’t the most pleasant feeling in the world, but it is a necessary discomfort. The swab is then sent to a lab where the cells are tested to check for abnormalities, such as inflammation, which can be indicative of an injury or infection in the reproductive area. 

According to the BC Cancer Agency, women should be having their first PAP test done at either the age of 21, or three years after first sexual contact, whichever comes first. Tests should then be done every year for the next three years, and then once every two years following that. This may seem like a lot, but PAP tests are crucial for helping to screen and diagnose both precancerous and cancerous conditions in the cervix and vagina. 

The next question a lot of women ask themselves is, when is the best time to have a PAP test done? Ideally, it shouldn’t be when you have your period, and should be done between 10-20 days after you first start bleeding in your menstrual cycle. There are a few things you have to avoid before having one done, as the following can wash away or mask the abnormal cells that the test is trying to find. You cannot have any sex 24 hours before the test, and any douching, vaginal medicines, tampons, or spermicidal creams aren’t allowed 48 hours before the test.

With all that information, you then have to figure out where you can get the test done. Luckily, there are a lot of different options out there for you in regards to this or any other sexual health services. If you have a family doctor, they can perform a PAP test for you, no problem. For those who don’t, you can book an appointment at most any clinic around your home and get it performed there. Of course, SFU does have two clinics on campus where you can set up an appointment: one at the Vancouver Harbour Centre Campus, and one in Maggie Benson Centre at the Burnaby Campus. They conduct “Well Women” exams that include a PAP test, among other procedures, including blood pressure testing and STI screenings. You can find their contact information on their website and phone to make an appointment with them. 

To find out more information on PAP tests or about the SFU Sexual Health Services, you can read up on SFU’s Health & Counselling Services, the Canadian Cancer Society’s PAP Testing, and the BC Cancer Agency’s cancer screening.