Pap tests are an important part of routine cancer screening and so are your rights when getting tested or accessing healthcare!
A message from Dr. Unjali Malhotra, FNHA Office of the Chief Medical Officer; and Barb Webster, CNS, FNHA Office of the Chief Nursing Officer
It's important to get regular Pap tests – even during the pandemic – because they screen for cervical cancer, which is widespread in Canada.
It's also important to know your rights with respect to your health care – including Pap tests, which are done during pelvic exams to check the cells of the cervix (the base of the uterus/womb).
Why it's important to not put off Pap tests
By getting regular Pap tests, women are more likely to avoid cervical cancer: the earlier problems are found and treated, the better chances are for a good outcome.
Getting immunized (vaccinated) against Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is also important for avoiding cervical cancer.
When to get a pelvic exam in addition to your regular screening
If you're experiencing abnormal bleeding, irritation, or other changes, you should get a pelvic exam as soon as possible.
Know that your feelings matter!
Pelvic exams can be stressful, or triggering as a result of past negative experiences. For advice on how to make this exam less unpleasant, see this message. If you need to talk to someone, call our 24/7 Maternity and Babies Advice Line (MaBAL), or Virtual Doctor of the Day.
What exactly happens during a pelvic exam, and what are my rights?
In a private room with an exam bed, a provider will ask about your health history, including your sexual or reproductive health, and you can ask your provider questions. Your provider should then ask for your consent to proceed. Even after you've consented, it's your right to change your mind and stop the exam.
If a nurse takes your history before a doctor or nurse practitioner does the exam, you have the right to meet that provider before undressing.
It's also your right to bring a support person (e.g., a sister, cousin, friend), or to ask for a female staff member to be in the exam room.
You'll need to remove your clothes from the waist down, and should be provided a private room or curtain, as well as a cover (paper or cloth). Do not hesitate to ask if these are not provided. If you're also getting an upper-body exam, it's your right to privately put back on your lower-body clothes before removing your upper-body clothes so that you do not feel too exposed.
During a pelvic exam, which lasts only a few minutes, your provider inserts a device called a speculum into your vagina to take a swab / sample of your cervical cells. You can ask to see / feel the device, and to insert it yourself if you wish. Your provider may also manually check internally (wearing gloves) for any abnormalities, masses or tenderness in the vulva, vagina, cervix, ovaries, uterus, and pelvis.
Pelvic exams cannot be done virtually, and women should never send photos of their pelvic region to providers.
You have the right to ask for other testing during this exam (e.g., for sexually transmitted infections). Some STI testing can be done as “self-testing"; you can ask for STI swabs to complete alone in the bathroom or at home. Your provider will explain how to do self-swabs and send in the swabs for testing.
How do you find out the results of your tests?
Your results will be available at your provider's office, but if you need further testing you'll be contacted directly. Ask your provider if follow-up tests are needed, and if so, what kind. If you don't understand your results, you have the right to ask your provider to explain them, or you can call MaBAL or Virtual Doctor of the Day. (Have the results with you to read to the virtual doctor as they don't have access to them.)
For more information on Pap results, see this message about what to expect when receiving your cancer screening results. Here are some other resources you may find helpful: