Getting up close and personal with your gyno isn't on the top of anyone's to-do list, but neither is getting cancer. So most of us show up for our yearly exam, put on the paper gown, and scoot down (and down and down) to get our pap smear.
But before you head to the dreaded appointment, check out these tips to make your experience a little more positive.
1. You don't need a pap smear every year. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recently changed their recommendations on pap testing. If you're in your 20s, you should be getting a pap test every three years. After age 30 you can space out the scoot-n-smear to every five years as long as you do an HPV test at the same time. After 65, you're in the clear, as long as none of your results have ever come back abnormal.
2. You do need an HPV test (eventually). Seventy percent of cervical cancers are caused by two strains of the human papilloma virus. So even if you're monogamous, not currently sexually active, or just dislike acronyms, you should be getting tested for HPV once you turn 30, Francis Chang, M.D., an ob-gyn at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, says. Younger women don't need the test, though: HPV is super common in your 20s but unlikely to cause problems, as your body usually will fight off the virus on its own.
3. Don't go if you're on your period. Menstrual blood can tamper with the test results, so ACOG recommends waiting to schedule your pap until you've finished bleeding. Some doctors don't mind performing a pap smear on a light day, but skip if you're bleeding heavily.
4. Speak up if you're uncomfortable. Gynecological exams can be harrowing for anyone, but can be particularly difficult for some women. Tell your doctor if you have experienced sexual abuse or assault, if you have pain before the exam, if you have panic attacks, if this is your first exam, or any other reason that might make you fearful. Most doctors are happy to make accommodations to help you feel more comfortable, such as allowing you to bring a friend or partner, talking you through the procedure, taking additional time, or even prescribing medicine like Valium in advance.
5. A positive test result doesn't necessarily mean you have cancer. Chang says there's no need to freak out if you get a positive test result for the Pap or HPV. He explains that you'll come in for a follow-up exam where the doc will swab your cervix with vinegar and iodine to look for abnormalities and then take a biopsy. It may be nothing—false positives do happen—but if it turns out there are cancer cells, know that when it's caught early, cervical cancer is one of the most treatable cancers.