A pap smear is a screening test for cervical cancer. Getting pap smears can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially if it is your first one. Here are some tips to make the exam more comfortable:
1. Know what to expect
Do your homework and get an understanding of what happens during your visit whether that be researching online or talking to someone you trust who has gotten a pap smear before. The exam first starts out with you undressing (underwear included) and putting on a gown.
The doctor will ask you to scoot all the way to the edge of the exam table, rest your legs in stirrups and to lie down on the exam table. They will then place a lubricated speculum inside your vagina. The speculum spreads your vaginal tissue so that the physician can visualize the cervix. The physician will then take a swab and twirl the swab against the cervix a few times to collect a sample of your cervical cells for the pap smear. The physician will then slowly close the speculum and remove it from the vagina.
It’s instinctual to tense up when we’re nervous, but the more relaxed you are during the exam, the faster and easier the exam will be. The exam should take no more than a few minutes, but if you’re squirming, it may be more painful for you and more difficult for the physician to examine what they need. One way to relax your legs, groin and buttocks is to wiggle your toes. Closing your eyes and taking deep breaths may also help. Try to keep your mind on something else, like a tile on the ceiling, posters on the wall, or even chatting with your physician. If you’re comfortable, bring someone you trust with you to your visit. If you’re not used to having something inside of your vagina, you can try to get used to the feeling at home with your fingers.
3. Urinate beforehand.
Along the same lines of relaxing, it’s really hard to relax your muscles if you have the urge to urinate! Also, a full bladder may make the normal pressure sensations from the exam even worse, so make sure to go to the restroom beforehand.
4. Don’t be shy about how you are “down there.”
Your doctor has probably examined 10-20 vaginas and cervixes in a single day, let alone thinking about how many they may have examined in the lifetime of their career. Don’t be shy or worried about how your anatomy may look, as everyone’s anatomy is a little different and physicians know this.
You do not need to shave, wax, or trim prior to the exam, however, if it makes you feel more confident and more comfortable to do some personal grooming, go for it!
5. Tell your doctor if you are a virgin.
During a pap smear, your physician will insert a speculum inside your vagina to spread it open and allow visualization of your cervix. The speculum may be made of plastic or metal and comes in various sizes. If you are a virgin or have never given birth, it may be more comfortable for the physician to use a smaller sized speculum. You may also tell the doctor to warm the speculum and to use extra lubricant with it.
6. Be comfortable with voicing how you are feeling throughout the whole experience.
Before the exam, voice your concerns, fears, anxieties, and previous experiences with your doctor. During the exam, the doctor has to use a swab to collect cells from your cervix, so some scraping and a pressure sensation is normal during a pap smear.
While a pap test might be slightly uncomfortable if you are in severe pain, tell your doctor right away, as it may be an indication of something else.
7. Find the doctor who is right for you.
Given that the pap smear requires exposure to very sensitive parts, it’s important to choose a doctor you are comfortable with and one who listens to you. Different doctors have different styles and techniques, and if you find that you didn’t have a good experience the first time, be open to looking at other doctors. It’s also completely okay to have a sexual preference for your doctor.
Vivian is currently a fourth year medical student at UC Davis and will be applying to ophthalmology residency this year. She graduated from UC Berkeley with a major in Public Health and a minor in Global Poverty. She has a master’s degree in Clinical Research from UC Davis and has just completed a year as a T32 Pre-Doctoral Research Fellow, a program supported by the National Institutes of Health, and UC Davis Clinical and Translational Science Center.
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