Chatting to girlfriends about getting a pap smear may be a bit awkward but avoiding regular screenings can be detrimental to preventing cancer.
We South African women need to get talking about our sexual and reproductive health, and working on debunking some of the myths about pap smears and other aspects of sexual health.
The simple test, that takes less than 15 minutes at a hospital, clinic or your nearest local Marie Stopes centre, looks for changes in the cells of the cervix. Changes happen very slowly but can lead to serious problems like cervical cancer, which often has no symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage.
There are many different types of HPV, a number of which lead, over time, to cervical cancer.
Pap smears are a safe and affordable way to screen for signs of cervical disease and pose no health risks. A doctor or nurse uses a small brush or spatula to remove a few cells from the cervix, which are sent to a laboratory to be tested.
"Pap smears and colposcopic biopsies have no effect on a woman's fertility," explains Mantshi Teffo-Menziwa, Director of Clinical Quality at Marie Stopes South Africa. "These are simple procedures with minimal risks."
She clarifies the misconception that "just because a woman's screening shows abnormal cells doesn't mean she requires a hysterectomy. In almost all cases, abnormal cells that are detected early can be easily treated either by freezing or cutting out the pre-cancerous lesion on the cervix."
Abnormal cells noticed at screening are closely observed or treated to prevent cancer before it develops. It is important to note that cervical cancer progresses faster in women who are HIV+, so they must take particular care to receive even more regular screenings.
Next to breast cancer, cervical cancer is the most common cancer among South African women but regular pap smears have been proven to reduce the risk by up to 90%. The Department of Health, Marie Stopes and Right to Care call on all partners in sexual and reproductive health to coordinate efforts to dispel community myths and get women to access pap smears and cervical screening, to save lives.
So ladies, let's get talking. Remind your sisters, friends, cousins and co-workers to have regular pap smears and breast checks so we can help each other stay happy and healthy.