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How can I lower my risk?

In addition to not smoking, there are two important ways of preventing cervical cancer: the Pap test and the cervical cancer vaccine. The Pap test, or Pap smear, finds early cell changes in the cervix before these changes turn into cancer. It can be done by your doctor. If the test finds cell changes early enough, it can prevent you from having cervical cancer.

Regular Pap tests every two years can reduce the incidence of cervical cancer by up to 90 per cent in Australia, and save 1200 Australian women dying from the disease each year. See below for more information about Pap tests.

Pap tests

Most abnormal changes in cervical cells are detected with a Papanicolaou test (also called a Pap test, or Pap smear). Because the Pap test can detect cervical changes before they progress to cancer, it is very effective in reducing the number of cervical cancers diagnosed and deaths from the disease.

All women who have ever had sex, including lesbians, should have a regular Pap test every two years from the ages of 18 to 70 years, or one or two years after first having sexual intercourse, whichever is later.

Women who have had the cervical cancer vaccine should still have regular Pap tests, because the vaccine does not protect against all the different strains of HPV (the virus that causes cervical cancer).

You can get a test done by your:

  • doctor
  • women’s health nurse
  • family planning clinic
  • sexual health clinic
  • community health clinic or women’s health centre
  • Aboriginal medical centre.

Your doctor or nurse will use an instrument called a speculum to open the vagina and see your cervix. Your doctor or nurse will then collect some cells from the cervix using a small brush or spatula. This may feel slightly uncomfortable, but in most cases it only takes a few minutes.

The cells are then sent to a laboratory where the cells are examined under a microscope for abnormalities. The results are usually available within two weeks.

Timing your Pap test

The National Cervical Screening Program recommends that the best time to have a Pap smear is around the middle of your menstrual cycle, a few days after you have finished your period and up to about a week before the next one is due.

For example, if you have a 28-day cycle (with day 1 being the day your period starts and day 28 being the last day before your next period), the best time for a Pap smear would be between day 9 (or two days after bleeding has stopped) and day 20.

If you have irregular periods, don’t let it stop you having a Pap smear. It is possible to have a Pap smear at any time during your menstrual cycle. Having it around the middle of your cycle just means the sample is most likely to be satisfactory for testing at the laboratory (which means you are less likely to have to go back for another test).

To learn more about Pap tests, talk to your GP or gynaecologist, or call the National Cervical Screening Program on 13 15 56.

Getting your results

Your Pap smear provider will usually receive your Pap smear result from the laboratory within two weeks. You should contact the doctor, clinic or nurse where you had your test to find out the result.

Most Pap test results are normal. A small number show changes in the cells of the cervix, which are mostly minor infections that usually clear up naturally or are easily treated. In a very small number of cases if the abnormality persists and is left untreated the changes may develop into cervical cancer. When detected early, changes to the cells of the cervix are easily managed. Your doctor can explain the test result and discuss treatment, if necessary.

Pap Test Registers

Pap Test Registers operate in each Australian State and Territory. They keep a confidential record of Pap tests and related follow-up tests. You don’t have to be on the register if you don’t want to be. However, the registers automatically send out reminder letters to women who are overdue for a test and to women with abnormal results for follow-up tests and care.

For enquiries, phone the National Cervical Screening Program in your State or Territory on 13 15 56.

The human papillomavirus vaccine can also help lower your risk of cervical cancer—see the page ‘Human papillomavirus vaccine’ for more information.