The Pap test is a simple test that can pick up early changes in the cells of your cervix which, if left untreated, may develop into a more serious precancerous form (abnormal changes that are not cancer but may become cancerous) or cancer. How is it done? A Pap test takes only a few minutes and is completely safe. It is done by placing an instrument called a speculum in your vagina. This holds your vaginal walls apart so the cervix can be seen. Then a small spatula or brush is used to wipe some loose cells from around the small opening in your cervix. The cells are placed on a glass slide and sent to a pathologist to be examined. Having a Pap test can feel uncomfortable but it shouldn’t cause you any pain. If it is painful, tell your doctor or nurse – there are things they can do to try to make it more comfortable. Where can you go for a Pap test? Make an appointment for a Pap test with your doctor, or with a women’s health nurse at your local family planning clinic, community health centre, sexual health clinic or Aboriginal medical service. Choose the person and place where you will feel the most comfortable. What about the results? Most Pap tests are entirely normal but a small percentage of women will receive abnormal results. An abnormal Pap test can mean there are changes in the cells of your cervix that may require further examination. This is usually done using a microscope, called a colposcope, placed at the entrance to your vagina. Not all abnormal cells need to be treated, but if required, the cells may be removed by freezing, burning, laser or biopsy (removal of a small amount of tissue). In most cases, the abnormal changes can be treated and are not cancer. Cervical cancer generally takes years to develop. That’s why Pap tests are so effective, as they can pick up changes in your cells before they become cancerous. Removing abnormal cells before they’ve become cancer is fairly straightforward; it typically involves a minor operation without a general anaesthetic. Once the cell changes turn into cancer, more serious surgery is usually needed to remove the cancer. WHO SHOULD BE TESTED? All women who have ever been sexually active should have a Pap test every two years. For some women – such as women who have had abnormal changes – more frequent testing may be recommended. Many women over 70 do not need to be tested any more and should talk this over with their doctor. Women who have had a hysterectomy (an operation to remove the womb) do not need to be tested either. WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS? Early changes in the cells of your cervix rarely cause any symptoms. But if early cell changes develop into cervical cancer, signs or symptoms may appear. See your doctor right away if you experience unexpected pain or bleeding – between your periods, after they have ceased, or during or after sex. These symptoms are common to many conditions and may not be cervical cancer, but they should be investigated.