Pap vs. Pelvic?
Text by Kelly Timmer, FNP-BC, WHNP-BC, and Sydne Skaer, FNP-BC
For years, women have been accustomed to getting a Pap smear—a test to detect certain cancerous or precancerous cells of the cervix—annually. A few years ago, however, the Pap smear guidelines for most women were revised to recommend a Pap smear once every three to five years instead of yearly. This change generated a major misconception—that no annual Pap meant there was no need for an annual exam.
There is, and always has been, more to a women’s health visit than the Pap. Despite the recent change to the Pap guidelines, all women should still visit their gynecologist annually for additional screenings, including a breast and pelvic exam.
For many women, their annual exam is the only health care visit they may have during the year. Although we specialize in women’s health care, Family Nurse Practitioners are trained in primary care and provide comprehensive health care to all of our patients.
So What Exams Should I Have and When?
First off – it is easy to confuse a Pap and a pelvic exam, especially as the Pap usually receives much more attention.
The purpose of a Pap is to screen for cervical cancer by taking a small sample of cells from the cervix to be tested for any abnormalities or indicators of cancer. The Pap test, under new guidelines, begins at age 21 and is administered every 3 years until age 30, then every 3-5 years depending on the patient. Although the guidelines for most women have changed, some women may still require an annual Pap smear based on abnormal results or if they have a history of dysplasia, cancer, or HIV.
Every woman who has had sexual intercourse at any point in her life or is over 21 should have a comprehensive physical exam every year. A typical well woman annual exam involves a comprehensive head-to-toe physical examination which may include listening to lungs and heart, skin cancer screening, checking the thyroid gland, the breasts and abdominals, depression and anxiety screening, as well as an examination of the vulva, vagina, cervix, uterus, pelvis, and ovaries. It also involves ordering of screening tests as recommended and as necessary, including those for heart disease, osteoporosis, and colon cancer.
Additionally, the annual well woman exam helps screen for several types of cancer and other conditions that cannot be detected by a Pap smear, including vulvar, vaginal, breast, and uterine abnormalities. It can also help detect ovarian cysts and uterine fibroids, which if left untreated can lead to serious health consequences and may require surgical intervention.
Skipping your well woman annual exam can allow these conditions and others to go unnoticed or undetected for an extended period of time, which may mean missing the optimal window for the easiest and most effective treatments.
As women, we spend a lot of time taking care of others in our lives. It’s important, however, to make time to also care for ourselves. If you haven’t done so already, schedule an appointment for an annual well woman exam.
Call Benefis Obstetrics, Gynecology & Infertility at (406) 731-8888 to schedule an appointment with one of our Women’s Health providers, Dr. Jeffery Palen DO, Kelly Timmer, FNP-BC WHNP-BC, or Sydne Skaer, FNP-BC.