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Her First Pap Test: How To Help Your Daughter Get Ready

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Mother and teenage daughter

It’s one of those subjects that both of you probably dread, but your daughter needs to hear about it. How do you encourage her, as a young adult, to schedule her first Pap test?

The best approach is to be gentle but honest, says Abike T. James, MD, Lead Physician at Penn Ob/Gyn Associates and Associate Professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology at Penn Medicine.

“Let her know why she’s doing it: to prevent cervical cancer,” Dr. James says. “The fact that she’s taking care of herself and preventing a serious illness is so important.”

Help her prepare for the exam

Here are some encouraging tips you can provide to your daughter:

  • The exam may be uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful.
  • The Pap test is fast and will be over quickly.
  • You can ask your doctor anything about the exam and your health.

If your daughter wants you there, go along. Tell her the doctor should be friendly and easy to talk to. “She should feel comfortable telling the provider that it’s her first pelvic exam,” Dr. James adds. “And the provider should take their time and explain things.”

Praise your daughter for being smart about her health

The benefits of this visit can go far beyond the Pap test. Generally, the doctor will ask about her health history, and provide breast and pelvic exams.

Your daughter can ask questions or talk about any problems, like irregular menstrual cycles and birth control. This is an opportunity for her to forge her own relationship with a doctor she trusts.

Here’s what you should know about human papillomavirus (HPV)

Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. But an HPV vaccine is 97 to 100% effective at protecting against the most common strains of HPV linked to cervical cancer.

“When your daughter sees the gynecologist, it’s a good idea for her to ask about getting the HPV vaccine, if she hasn’t already,” Dr. James advises.

In 2012, 12,042 US women were diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 4,074 women died from it, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most cases of invasive cervical cancer—the type that has spread beyond the surface of the cervix—are found in women who have not been getting regular Pap tests, says the American Cancer Society.

How young is too young to hear the details?

If your fourth-grade daughter is asking questions about Pap tests, sex, or even birth control, don’t panic, Dr. James says. When children start asking about these topics, it’s usually a sign that they’re ready to hear about them.

“We all know from growing up ourselves that girls start hearing things at a very early age,” says Dr. James, a mother of two daughters. “Sex is everywhere. My thought is, if they’re going to be exposed to it, I’d rather be the one to talk to them about it. I can instill the values that I want.”

Educate yourself, too

Not ready to be a “guru” of all things gynecological? You can build your confidence by:

“Your child will learn that you’re a real authority on the subject,” Dr. James says. “You can give them as much detail as they’ll understand. But I think you have to tell them the truth.”

Don’t forget to take care of your own health, too. Stay on top of your own Pap tests, and you’ll be setting an example that your child will notice.

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