Routine pap smears are a standard part of women’s healthcare. They help screen for cell changes that may indicate an increased cancer risk or the early onset of cancer. Here’s what to expect from your routine pap smear and what to do if you receive results that indicate abnormal cell growth.
What is a Pap Smear?
A pap smear is a cervical examination that involves taking a small sample of tissue from your cervix to screen for cell abnormalities. These abnormalities may indicate the presence of cancer or an increased risk of cancer. Early detection improves treatability, which is why it’s crucial to stay on top of your regular pap tests.
Generally, women should have their first pap test at age 21, although your doctor might recommend earlier testing depending on your medical history. Usually, women will have a pap test every three years between 21-65 unless an abnormal result is found. If you are low risk or aged 30+, your doctor might recommend testing every five years.
You might require more frequent pap tests if you show certain risk factors, including:
- an abnormal pap test indicating the presence of precancerous cells
- a cervical cancer diagnosis
- HIV infection
- HPV infection
- being immunocompromised
- being a current smoker
HPV tests are performed the same way as pap smears and can be performed at the same time. This is called co-testing and is often done in women aged 30+ who might not have had the HPV vaccine. The HPV test screens for the presence of human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer.
Abnormal Pap Smear Result Next Steps
If you receive an abnormal pap smear result, it means that the test has found abnormal cells on your cervix. While you might worry this means you have cancer, know that it most often indicates that your cervical cells have undergone changes caused by the presence of HPV.
Depending on the type and severity of cell changes your pap test shows, your doctor might recommend further testing or intervention. Sometimes further monitoring might be all that’s required.
Below are the most common abnormalities and their next steps:
- Atypical squamous cells. If these are present, your doctor might do an HPV test to see whether further intervention is needed. If HPV is not detected, the risk level is low. Monitoring and more frequent pap testing might be recommended.
- Squamous intraepithelial lesions. These can be precancerous cells. Low-grade cells represent the possibility of cancer and should be monitored. If high-grade cells are detected, your doctor might order a colposcopy (special cervical examination) or biopsy to test for cancer.
- Atypical glandular cells. If these cells found in your cervix and uterus are abnormal, your doctor might order a colposcopy or other tests to check for cancer.
- Squamous cell cancer or adenocarcinoma cells. These are a strong indicator of cancer, and your doctor will order further testing, including a colposcopy, to confirm the presence of cancer.
Staying on top of your routine pap smears is key to detecting and treating abnormalities that can lead to cervical cancer before cancer is actually present. Routine screening can also help detect cancer in its earliest stages when it’s most treatable. Take the time today to book your appointment – and encourage your loved ones to do the same.
If you’ve received an abnormal pap test result or have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, talk to the team at Southwest Women’s Health and Oncology about the next steps.