Cervical Screening FAQ

Do I really need a Pap test?

If you have ever had any sexual activity you need to have a Pap test every two years until the age of 70 years unless otherwise advised by your health practitioner.

Even if you have had the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine you still need to have regular Pap tests because the vaccine will not prevent all cervical cancers.

Cancer of the cervix is one of the most preventable of all cancers. Pap tests pick up early warning signs long before you experience any symptoms that can be treated before cancer develops. By having a Pap test every two years, you're giving yourself a chance for anything to be found and treated if necessary. Most women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer in Australia have not had regular Pap tests.

What causes cancer of the cervix?

Almost all cases of cervical cancer are linked to infection with some types of human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a very common and exposure to this virus can be considered a normal part of being sexually active.

If you smoke you may increase your risk of cancer of the cervix. The risk of developing cancer of the cervix also increases with age.

What is HPV?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that is spread via genital skin-to-skin contact.

Over 100 types of HPV have been identified. Of these, approximately 30 infect the genital area of males and females, of which about 13 are considered ‘high risk’ as these have the potential to cause cancer of the cervix.

Infection with genital HPV is very common as a result of being sexually active. Four out of five people will have genital HPV at some time in their life and may never know it.

How is a Pap test done?

The test checks for changes in the cells of the cervix which is located at the top of the vagina. It is a simple test that takes a few minutes and is completely safe.

A small spatula or brush is used to wipe the cells from the cervix. The cells are sent to a laboratory to be tested. Having a Pap test can feel uncomfortable, but it should not hurt.

Talk to your health practitioner about any concerns.

Do I need a Pap test if I have no symptoms?

Yes. Pap tests are for well women without symptoms.

If you are experiencing any symptoms such as abnormal bleeding, unusual discharge or pain, even if your previous Pap test results were negative, you should seek advice from your health practitioner. Having a Pap test done while there are symptoms is not recommended.

Is more frequent Pap screening necessary?

No. Screening more frequently than every two years offers no substantial advantage. Having a Pap test every two years is quite sufficient. 

More frequent Pap screening may be recommend for women who have had cervical cancer or whose previous Pap test result showed significant cell changes or who were exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) before birth (a medicine prescribed to pregnant women).

Do I need Pap tests if I‘ve had the HPV vaccine?

Yes. The HPV vaccine will not prevent all cervical cancers because it only protects you against some HPV types. Therefore, you should continue to have regular screening (Pap tests). Moreover, HPV vaccination is most effective when given before initial exposure to HPV, you may have been exposed to HPV before you received the vaccine. 

When should I have my Pap test?

If you have your menstrual cycle, the best time to have your Pap test is a few days after you have finished your period and about a week or so before your next one is due.

What if I’ve never had sex?

Women who have never had sex have extreme low risk of getting cervical cancer, however, if they have had any form of sex, there is a possibility that cervical cancer may develop.

What if I don't want to find out if I have cancer?

Pap tests detect abnormalities in the cells of the cervix before cancer has a chance to develop. Early detection of any abnormalities in the cells can improve the chances of successful treatment and recovery and can also result in greater treatment options for women.

What if I'm over 70 years of age?

If you are 70 years or over and have had two normal Pap tests within the last five years, you do not need to continue having Pap tests, but you can do so if you wish.

If you are over 70 and have never had a Pap test, you need to have one. Make an appointment to see your health practitioner.

What if I've gone through menopause?

It is important to continue having regular two yearly Pap tests after menopause as the risk of developing cancer of the cervix increases with age.

What if I have not had sex for a long time?

If you have ever had sex, even only once, no matter how long ago, you are at risk of cancer of the cervix and should have a Pap test every two years.

What if I’ve had a hysterectomy?

You may still need to have Pap tests  if: 

  • the hysterectomy was performed because of cancer of the uterus, cervix, ovaries or fallopian tubes, or abnormal cells were found at the time of surgery
  • you don’t know why the hysterectomy was done
  • you had abnormal Pap tests in the past
  • you don’t know whether you’ve had abnormal Pap tests in the past
  • you have never had a Pap test
  • you are taking medication, which suppresses the immune system, e.g. cortisone prescribed for asthma or arthritis  
  • you were exposed to the drug diethystileostrol (DES) (this drug may have another brand name such as Stilboestrol) before you were born (this drug was prescribed for pregnant women in the 1950s and 1960s to prevent miscarriages).

Check with your specialist or health practitioner whether you still need Pap tests.   

What if I haven't had a Pap test for a long time?

If your last Pap test was more than two years ago, make an appointment as soon as possible. If you wish, ask your health practitioner for a long appointment so that plenty of time is available to answer all your questions.

What if I’m pregnant?

Speak to your health practitioner.

If you’re pregnant and have never had a Pap test or are overdue for a Pap test, talk to your health practitioner to find out whether you should have the test or wait until after childbirth.

Pap tests can usually be performed up to 24 weeks of gestation or 12 weeks after birth. Discuss your needs with your family doctor, obstetrician or gynaecologist.

Do I need a Pap test if I am lesbian or bisexual?

Yes. If you are lesbian or bisexual or a woman who has had sex with a woman, you need regular Pap tests too.

Many people and health professionals believe that lesbians don’t need Pap tests and that being a lesbian is protection against problems like cervical cancer and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It isn’t. Lesbians and bisexual women need regular Pap tests. Only women who have never had sex at all, either with men or women may be advised that screening is not necessary because their risk of getting cervical cancer is very low. 

HPV is spread through genital skin contact during all sorts of sexual activity so women who have never had sex with men are still at risk of developing cervical cancer.

What if I'm worried I might have a sexually transmitted infection (STI)?

A Pap test is not a test to detect STIs. If you are worried that you may have an STI, inform your health practitioner to discuss other tests.

Do women with genital warts or a history of genital warts require more frequent screening?

No. Women with a history of genital warts do not require more frequent screening than two yearly. If they develop a cervical lesion it will not progress any more rapidly than in women who have never had genital warts.

What if I can’t remember when I am due for my next Pap test?

The ACT Cervical Screening Register enables the results of all Pap tests taken in the ACT to be recorded in a central place so that you can be reminded if your Pap test is overdue. Information on the Register is highly restricted and can only be accessed by you, your doctor, laboratory staff and Register staff.

When you have your Pap test, your name goes on a reminder system of the Register. A reminder letter will be sent to you when you are overdue for your next Pap test. This is a free and confidential service.

Besides providing you with the reminder service, the Register also:

  • works with your health practitioner to make sure you have follow-up care if needed; and
  • keeps a history of your results.

If you do not want to get reminder letters or be part of the Register, tell your health practitioner each time you have a Pap test.

In late 2017 a new National Register will invite women to go for their Cervical Screening Test when they are due and will also remind women if they are overdue for their test.

To find out more about the new National Register, including brief information about the changes, talk to your doctor or nurse or visit the National Cervical Screening Program website.

What are the changes coming in 2017?

In late 2017 a new more accurate Cervical Screening Test will replace the current Pap test. Based on new evidence and better technology, the new Cervical Screening Test is for women aged 25 to 74 years.

To find out more about the new Cervical Screening Test, including brief information about the changes, talk to your doctor or nurse or visit the National Cervical Screening Program website.

Where do I go for my new Cervical Screening Test?

See your doctor or nurse for your new Cervical Screening Test. The way your doctor or nurse collects a sample will remain the same. However the laboratory test will change and will look for human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV infection if left untreated may eventually lead to cervical cancer.

To find out more about the new Cervical Screening Test, talk to your doctor or nurse or visit the National Cervical Screening Program website.

When should I have my new Cervical Screening Test?

If you are 25 or over, see your doctor or nurse when you are due for your new Pap test – usually this is two years after your last Pap test if your previous result was normal. Once you have had your first Cervical Screening Test and if the result is normal (HPV negative) then your next Cervical Screening Test will be in five years time. If your result is not normal (HPV positive), your doctor or nurse will tell you of any further testing or investigation that is needed.

If you are under 25, you will be eligible for the new Cervical Screening Test when you turn 25.

Please note that whatever your age, if you were told to go for further testing or investigation after your previous Pap test but you have not done so, it is important to see your doctor or nurse as soon as possible.

To find out more about the new Cervical Screening Test, talk to your doctor or nurse or visit the National Cervical Screening Program website.

Will I still be reminded to go for my Cervical Screening Test?

In late 2017 a new National Register will invite women to go for their Cervical Screening Test when they are due and will also remind women if they are overdue for their test.

To find out more about the new Cervical Screening Test and new National Register, talk to your doctor or nurse or visit the National Cervical Screening Program website.

What if I have a disability?

All women, including those with a disability, between the ages of 20 and 69 who have ever had sex need to have regular Pap tests. Discuss your individual needs with your health practitioner.

What if English is not my first language?

If English is not your first language and you would like an interpreter, call the Translating and Interpreting Service on 13 14 50. Interpreters are available to help you make an appointment. When making your appointment, let them know if you need an interpreter.

You can also have a family member or friend attend the appointment with you.

Read information in your language available from the National Cervical Screening Program.

 


 

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