The Pap test is a simple and relatively painless medical procedure for the early detection of cancer in women. The two most common and fatal forms of cancer are cervical and uterine. The test is considered to be one of the most effective weapons in the modern fight against cancer.
The test, whose full name is Papanicolaou's Smear, is named for George Nicholas Papanicolaou (1883-1962), the Greek-American doctor who developed it. In 1917, Papanicolaou began a microscopic study of vaginal discharge (fluid) cells in pigs in order to find out if the fluid contained any indications of disease in the animal. After expanding his research to humans, Papincolaou observed cell abnormalities in the discharge of a woman with cervical cancer. This observation inspired him to develop a method of detecting cancer through microscopic cell examination.
Papanicolaou's original findings were published in 1928, but his colleagues were quite satisfied with their standard method of taking a sample of cervical tissue to detect cancer. Unfortunately for patients, this procedure was longer and more painful. When Papanicolaou and his collaborator Herbert Traut published a monograph (a small, scholarly book) on the new procedure in 1943, it began to gradually gain acceptance.
The Pap smear allows detection of cancer even before symptoms are noted. In its earliest stages, cancer of the cervix is almost 100 percent curable. Also, 80 percent of cancers of the uterus detected by a Pap test can be cured. Every adult woman should have a pap test as part of a regular gynecological exam once a year.