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Pap smears are like routine car service. You’re not exactly sure what's being checked or why, but you know you should get them. Even well-informed women who know that a Pap test is primarily a screen for cervical cancer are still unsure as to whether it also checks for sexually transmitted infections, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer as well as general "gynecologic wellness." So, what exactly is a Pap test?

In 1928, after spending months observing his own wife’s cervical cells under a microscope, Dr. George Papanicolaou invented the Pap smear as a method to detect cervical cancer. His discovery has withstood the test of time. Dr. Papanicolaou can be credited with the fact that cervical cancer is now a rare cause of death in the U.S. despite the fact that it remains the leading cause of death in countries where Pap smears are not routinely performed. (Though it seems Mary Papanicolaou should get at least some of the credit for submitting to countless exams to support her husband’s research!)

Most women are familiar with the basic process: A speculum is inserted into the vagina in order to sample cells from the surface and canal of the cervix. The cells are then sent to a lab where they are checked for abnormal cell growth, also known as dysplasia or cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN).

Every year, more than 3.5 million women receive that stomach-dropping notification: "Your Pap smear is abnormal." But even if dysplasia is detected, the chance of a real cervical cancer is relatively small. Out of that 3.5 million, only 13,000 are likely to have a true cancer. The rest will ultimately find out that there's nothing wrong with their cervix, or they have a dysplasia which can be easily treated, or more likely, that will go away on its own.

Next: What type of HPV you should worry about, and what type is really no big deal

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