What the Results of a Pap Smear May Mean

What is a Pap smear?

A Pap smear is a screening test your doctor does to check for early stages of cancer of the cervix. The cervix is the opening of the uterus, or womb. Like other screening tests, Pap smears find disease early - while it's still easy to treat. Before Pap smears were available, cancer of the cervix was common and often fatal. Today, cancer of the cervix in women who have regular Pap smears is rare and it is easily treated when found early.

What happens during a Pap smear?

Your doctor will insert a speculum into your vagina to spread the walls of your vagina apart. This allows your doctor to take a sample of cells from your cervix. Your doctor will scrape some cells from your cervix with a tiny spatula-like instrument. These cells will be put on a glass slide, stained with a special dye and looked at under a microscope.

Pap smears aren't usually painful and don't take more than a few minutes.

Does an abnormal Pap smear mean I have cancer of the cervix?

Not necessarily. While an abnormal Pap smear may be a sign of cancer, many different changes on your cervix can cause an abnormal Pap smear. Pap smears can be abnormal if the cervix is inflamed or irritated. This can be caused by an infection of the cervix.

The cervix may also be going through some changes called dysplasia. dysplasia means the cells on the Pap smear look abnormal under the microscope. Dysplasia isn't the same thing as cancer.

Why do I need more tests?

Because your Pap smear was abnormal, more information is needed. An abnormal Pap smear is a general sign that something may be wrong. Further tests will be needed to show why the result was abnormal. Your doctor may suggest that you have another Pap smear or that you have a colposcopy.

What is a colposcopy?

A colposcopy allows your doctor to look very closely at your cervix. A colposcope is a special instrument that shines a light on your cervix and magnifies it so that it can be seen better. If your doctor sees an area that doesn't look normal, he or she will take a small piece of tissue from that area. This is called a biopsy. The tissue sample will be looked at under a microscope.

Having a colposcopy feels similar to having a Pap smear. But some women have some cramping and bleeding during a colposcopy.

What are my treatment options?

Your treatment options depend on the cause of the abnormal results. If the problems is a minor infection, it often can be treated with medication. If the abnormal Pap smear is caused by changes in the cells, the affected areas of the cervix may need to be removed.

There are two main kinds of treatment to remove abnormal tissue from the cervix - sometimes the surface of the cervix is frozen in a procedure called cryosurgery, and sometimes a heated electrical wire is used to remove the abnormal areas. Both treatments are done in your doctor's office. If the procedure is done with the wire, your cervix will be numbed with a medicine before the procedure is started. After you are treated, you may have some cramping or other side effects. Your doctor can explain these effects to you.

If the colposcopy and biopsy show that you have more advanced cancer, you and your doctor may want to talk with a cancer specialist before deciding what to do next.

What happens after I have been treated?

That depends on what abnormalities are found and how they are treated. In general, most women who have an abnormal Pap smear need to have Pap smears more often for a while after they have been treated. Your doctor will let you know how often you will need to have Pap smears. Once your Pap has returned to normal and continues to be normal, you and your doctor will decide how often the test should be repeated.

This information provides a general overview on abnormal Pap smears and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.

Lowell General Hospital, 295 Varnum Avenue, Lowell, Massachusetts 01854, Main Telephone: (978) 937-6000
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