A Pap smear (also known as the Pap test) is a medical procedure in which a sample of cells from a woman's cervix (the end of the uterus that extends into the vagina) is collected and spread (smeared) on a microscope slide. The cells are examined under a microscope in order to look for pre-malignant (before-cancer) or malignant (cancer) changes.
A Pap smear is a simple, quick, and relatively painless screening test. Its specificity - which means its ability to avoid classifying a normal smear as abnormal (a "false positive" result) - while very good, is not perfect. The sensitivity of a Pap smear - which means its ability to detect every single abnormality -- while good, is also not perfect, and some "false negative" results (in which abnormalities are present but not detected by the test) will occur. Thus, a few women develop cervical cancer despite having regular Pap screening.
In the vast majority of cases, a Pap test does identify minor cellular abnormalities before they have had a chance to become malignant and at a point when the condition is most easily treatable. The Pap smear is not intended to detect other forms of cancer such as those of the ovary, vagina, or uterus. Cancer of these organs may be discovered during the course of the gynecologic (pelvic) exam, which usually is done at the same time as the Pap smear.
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