Health advocacy has become extremely important to me and my well being. I was officially diagnosed with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder in January 2022, but I had been living with both for what felt like forever.
My anxiety and OCD manifest themselves through my health, basically making me a certified hypochondriac. My symptoms range from checking myself for signs of illnesses that I definitely do not have to having an extreme fear of the doctor's office.
So when I started approaching the age when I should receive my first pap smear, I was terrified. A test that involves my sexual health and a cervical cancer screening? Nothing could be more frightening for someone like me. Despite my comprehensive knowledge on all things concerning my health, a pap smear was something I found I didn’t know as much about as I thought I did.
So this is for all of you readers with a cervix (and for those of you who have sex with said people, because you should know this too): a comprehensive guide to pap smears and sexual health advocacy from yours truly.
First and foremost, what is a pap smear? A pap smear, or pap test, is a procedure where your doctor uses a small brush to remove cells from the surface or the cervix and the area around it to test for cervical cancer and other cell changes that could potentially lead to cervical cancer. Pap smears are usually performed at the same time as a pelvic exam — which involves an internal exam to assess the uterus, the ovaries and the pelvis — and can also be done at the same time as a test for certain types of human papillomavirus.
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection mainly transmitted through — you guessed it— sexual contact. HPV is responsible for most cases of cervical cancer.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, recommends that those with a cervix aged 21 to 29 should have a pap smear every three years. You might need to be screened more often if you have a biological family history of cervical cancer, are HIV positive, have a weakened immune system or were exposed before birth to diethylstilbestrol (a hormone which was given to pregnant women between 1940 and 1971), according to the ACOG.
A pap smear used to be recommended every year for those aged 21 to 29, but these guidelines changed, as doctors now better understand cervical cancer and its development.
Although pap smears are not recommended every year, you should still see your OB-GYN at least once a year to discuss concerns including problems with sex, birth control, pelvic pain, abnormal bleeding or for a breast or pelvic exam. This is also a good time to get tested for other sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea and chlamydia.
Even though there is more knowledge on HPV and risks for cervical cancer, this does not mean it is not important to advocate for comprehensive sexual health care from your doctor.
HPV, for instance, is the most common STI in the United States. Even though most cases of HPV will clear up on their own, there is still risk that HPV infection could lead to cervical cancer, which is why you shouldn’t disregard comprehensive cervical care.
Being open and honest about your sexual health is scary. Stigma related to sex and sexual health is deeply rooted in our society, and women in particular are often judged for discussing their sexual behaviors and desires. Shame about sex and sexual health has overtime become embedded in policy, school, social media and religious institutions. And these stigmas are dangerous.
According to the American Sexual Health Association, half the population will contract an STI before the age of 25. No matter how safe your sex practices are, you may be exposed to an STI at some point in your life, so maintaining proper sexual healthcare is vital to your health and your sexual partners’ healths.
Protecting your health shouldn’t bring you shame.
If I have learned anything about myself through my journey navigating health anxiety, it is that the more I know about my health and the more I can advocate for what I need, the healthier and safer I will be. There is nothing wrong with asking questions, talking about “uncomfortable” topics with your doctor or advocating for more comprehensive care.
After all, it’s your health.
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