Benefits and limitations of the Pap test

Benefits of the Pap test 

Worldwide, cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women. This is because women in developing countries don't have access to Pap tests like we do in Australia.

In Australia, around 150 women die each year from cervical cancer. The vast majority of these women have not had regular Pap tests.

In contrast, regular Pap tests save 1,200 Australian women from developing the disease every year.

Regular Pap tests can prevent nine out of 10 cervical cancers, and remain the best way for women to protect themselves against the disease.

Having a Pap test every two years could save your life.

Limitations of the Pap test

No screening test is 100% accurate, however the Pap test has been shown to be an effective tool for preventing cervical cancer.

Pap tests may not always detect cell changes. This may be because:

  • The sample does not contain abnormal cells which may be present on the cervix.
  • Some samples are hard to interpret. For example, blood or mucus may make it hard to see the cells.
  • Occasionally, abnormal cells are missed under the microscope.
  • Sometimes abnormal cells occur in cells high up in the cervix or deep in the glands of the cervix (adenocarcinoma). It is not always possible to get samples from these areas.

However, most cases of cervical cancer take up to 10 years to develop, so having a Pap test regularly means changes missed on one test are usually found on the next, well before they become a problem. 

Cancer Council Helpline