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What’s Up Down There? Understanding Your Annual Exam

By EmpowHER January 11, 2012 - 10:38am

Gynecological exams rank right up there with dentist appointments for many women.

Have you ever wondered though what really goes on “down there” during the pelvic exam at your annual gynecologic visit? While most of us are counting down the seconds until it’s over, your doctor is performing important, and potentially life-saving exams.

A core part of the annual “pelvic exam” is to screen for cervical cancer, the second-most-common cancer in women worldwide. To check for abnormal cell growth, the doctor performs a Pap test to collect cell samples from your cervix. The cervix sits at the top end of your vagina, connecting the vagina with the uterus, and is shaped much like a bagel.

During a Pap, the doctor uses a small brush and collects cells inside the cervix.

Next, your doctor will use a spatula-shaped tool to scrape cells from the outside of the cervix. Both samples are viewed under a microscope to check for abnormal growth.

The good news is that, for women age 30 and older, with the same cell sample collected during your Pap test, doctors can also check for the virus that is the primary cause of cervical cancer, the human papillomavirus, or HPV. Cell sample are analyzed for the presence of high-risk types of HPV that are associated with cervical cancer. If high-risk HPV is found, your doctor can then put appropriate monitoring and follow-up in place to make sure cervical disease or cervical cancer never have the chance to develop! And if both test results come back normal, you may not need to repeat them for up to three years (though be sure see your doctor each year for your annual check-ups.) See this chart to better understand your Pap and HPV test results.

Women should begin getting a Pap test beginning at age 21. Women age 30 and older should ask for an HPV test together with their Pap test. Cervical cancer more often develops in women age 30 and older, because HPV infections in women over the age of 30 are more likely to be long-lasting.

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