Cervical Cancer Pap Smear

The Pap smear is the standard screening tool used in the United States to test for the presence of irregular cells that could become cancerous. A regular Pap smear provides an opportunity to detect pre-cancerous cells in the cervix. Cervical cancers in the early stage of development, or carcinomas in situ, are highly treatable because the cancer cells are located in a layer of cells in or around the cervix and have not spread to other parts of the body. Once the cancer cells spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body the disease is more difficult to treat and cervical cancer treatment becomes more complex.

The Pap smear, named for its inventor Dr. George Papanicolaou, is performed during a routine gynecological exam. The doctor gently scrapes cells from the cervix and “smears” them onto a glass microscope slide. These cells are highlighted with a special stain so they can be viewed under a microscope. If abnormal cells are present, further testing is required to rule out or positively diagnose cervical cancer.

Pap smears should begin at age 18 or in sexually active  women.

Guidelines for the Pap Smear Test

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Pap smears should begin at age 18 or as soon as a woman has had her first sexual encounter. Women should be screened at least every three years, although some experts recommend annual testing up to the age of thirty. Between the ages of thirty and seventy, women should consult their gynecologist regarding the frequency of screening necessary for them. Several years of negative testing may preclude the need for an annual Pap smear.

HPV and DNA Screening

While the Pap smear is the primary screening tool for cervical cancer, new screening methods are being studied all the time. Future screening may become more advanced with the use of biological markers. Some candidates include DNA testing for the human papillomavirus (HPV) genome to detect the presence of the virus. The drawback with screening for the presence of HPV is that most sexually active women will actually be positive at some point, but not all will develop cancer. Testing positive for HPV may cause considerable psychological distress. A better approach may be the development of a vaccine to prevent HPV infection.

Keep in mind that no screening method is 100 percent accurate 100 percent of the time. A certain small percentage of women will receive a clean bill of health when cancer cells are present, and another small percentage will receive questionable results in the absence of cancer.

Potential Urine Test

Researchers at the University of Zimbabwe Medical School in Harare have developed a urine test that detects HPV-16, the most common strain of HPV seen in cervical cancer cases. With further research and development this urine test could be an option for screening in developing countries where Pap smears are less readily available.


American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.(2003, July 31). Cervical cancer screening: Testing can start later and occur less often under new ACOG recommendations. Retrieved August 18, 2003, from www.acog.org/from_home/publications/press_releases/nr07-31-03 -1.cfm.