As we reach menopause and menstruation stops, many women wonder if it’s still necessary to get pelvic exams and Pap tests. The short answer is yes. Even if you’re not sexually active, your risk of cancer increases as you age. Regular pelvic exams with a Pap test are the most effective way to detect abnormal, pre-cancerous growths on the cervix.
Each year, around 12,000 women in the U.S. alone are diagnosed with cervical cancer. About a third of these women will die from the disease. Regular Pap tests will help your doctor detect cancer early so they can take action to treat cancer before it develops into something more serious or life-threatening.
Below we’ve detailed what happens during a routine pelvic exam, how often you should get one, and whether or not it’s time for you to stop getting Pap tests.
What Is a Pelvic Exam and Pap Test?
Though it’s not the most comfortable or convenient procedure, a pelvic exam allows your healthcare provider to examine your pelvic organs to determine if they are healthy or need further tests for potential disease.
This exam looks at:
- Vagina and labia
- Fallopian tubes
Sometimes your healthcare provider may opt to use ultrasound for a better look, depending on the size of your body. In addition to this examination, you will get a Pap test. During this test, your healthcare provider will scrape a small sample of cells from your cervix using a spatula or brush.
These cells are then preserved and sent to a lab to detect any unusual cell growth. The Pap test identifies cellular changes in the cervix potentially caused by HPV, or human papillomavirus, which may lead to cervical cancer. Women contract HPV through sexual contact with a positive partner. This risk means all sexually active women, despite sexual preference, should get a Pap test at least every three years.
When Should Menopausal Women Get Pap Tests?
Experts recommend women between the ages of 21 and 65 have a Pap smear every three years. They also recommend women have an HPV test combined with a Pap every five years beginning at age 30.
If you are age 65 or over and have had three consecutive years of negative Pap screenings and ten years with at least two negative HPV tests, you can talk to your healthcare provider about skipping this type of screening. Additionally, if you have had a hysterectomy with removal of the cervix and no history of cervical cancer, talk to your doctor about omitting screening from your wellness exam. If you decide to stop Pap and HPV screenings, it is important to continue getting regular pelvic exams.
What If Symptoms Arise Between Exams?
If you are between exams and specific symptoms arise, it’s essential to contact your healthcare provider for a visit. These symptoms may include:
Abnormal bleeding. Post-menopausal women should not be experiencing vaginal bleeding.
Vaginal discharge. Any atypical discharge that may be watery, pink, or foul-smelling should send up flags.
- Pelvic pain. Pelvic pain may be a warning sign of abnormal changes in your pelvic organs, though it’s not always a direct symptom of cancer.
As always, body awareness is crucial for your health. We encourage you to get to know your vagina and labia. Pay attention to any changes you see throughout the year and make a note of them when you visit your healthcare provider.