Got a pap smear on the horizon? That’s a good thing. Seriously! Okay, it might be an uncomfortable and downright awkward meeting with your doc, but this quick test could save your life. Pap smears look for abnormalities in the cells of the cervix associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV), which could indicate cancer or pre-cancer, so it’s essential that you don’t put it off. But, if you’re worried about the process or just want to know more about that whole HPV thing, we’ve got the lowdown to ease your mind…

1. Just about everyone gets HPV

This virus is sexually transmitted through skin-to-skin contact and around 80 per cent of people will get it at some point. That sounds scary until you realise that the human immune system is pretty good at knocking it out most of the time. There are more than 100 strains of HPV, and not all of them are responsible for cancer. Some of them cause warts on your hands and feet; others cause genital warts; a few ‘high-risk’ types, in particular types 16 and 18, can cause abnormal cells in the cervix that could lead to cancer.

2. There are no symptoms to watch out for, so testing is crucial

“HPV infection doesn’t have symptoms,” says Sydney gynaecologist Dr Anthony Richards. That’s why it’s so important to stay on top of those pap smears regularly. At the moment it’s recommended that sexually active women from the age of 18-20 (or two years after first having sex, whichever is later) have a pap smear every two years.

3. An abnormal pap smear doesn’t mean cancer

Don’t freak out if you get an abnormal result on your pap smear – there’s a good chance there’s nothing to worry about. But you definitely need to follow it up to be sure. “Changes in cervical cells give an indication that there is pre-cancer or cancer,” explains Dr Richards. “The majority of women will not have cancer. Depending on the severity of the result, the woman may be referred to see a gynaecologist to have a further test, called a colposcopy. The majority of these women will be diagnosed pre-cancer (NOT cancer) and some will need treatment to remove pre-cancerous cells, before they turn into cancer.”

You may need to chat to your doctor about more frequent screening if you’ve been treated for suspicious or pre-cancerous cells.

4. You can totally deal with the test

If you’ve ever put off a pap smear because you’re worried about the awk factor or don’t like the idea of an invasive test, here’s how to deal: Find a doctor you’re comfortable with (ask friends for recs or check with your practice if there’s a particular doctor they’d recommend); learn some meditation or deep-breathing techniques (try inhaling and exhaling over a count of three or four) to settle your nerves in the moment; and remember that your GP isn’t judging you! The test is pretty quick and involves inserting a plastic or metal instrument called a speculum into your vagina. The doctor will use a brush to collect a sample of your cervix cells, and that’s it! If you think a pap smear will cause anxiety for you, ask for a longer appointment so you can talk it out with your doctor and tackle the test without rushing.