Even the most routine exams can stir up all sorts of stressful emotions, especially when your results could indicate a serious problem with your health. With Pap smears, however, abnormal results aren’t always a reason to panic.
Our women’s health experts at OB/GYN Specialists, led by Dr. Marc Wilson, are here with some insight (and some comfort) to help you better understand what your Pap smear results actually mean.
Why the Pap smear?
We don’t know too many women who look forward to having a Pap smear — and we don’t blame them. However, Pap smears have had the greatest impact on women’s health since they first hit the women’s health scene in the late 1920s.
Back then, cervical cancer was among the leading causes of death in women in America. Now, thanks to the Pap smear, only about 14,000 women are diagnosed every year.
What is a Pap smear?
If it’s been a while, or you’re scheduled for your first Pap smear at your next well-woman exam, we’ve got you covered with a refresher on the basics.
Pap smears are, first and foremost, an early detection tool we use to check for abnormal cells in your cervix. We take a swab of the inside of your cervix to collect a sample of cells. We send the sample to a laboratory to be tested for irregularities.
Your results either come back normal or indicate that your cells have started to change.
The main concern with cellular irregularities in your cervix is the presence of surgical cancer. With this simple swab, we can catch cellular changes long before they become cancerous and be proactive.
Cellular irregularities are primarily the results of human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted disease. How common? Researchers have determined that upwards of 80% of sexually active women contract the infection at some point in their lives.
While there are 200 different types of HPV, only 13 have the potential to cause cervical cancer. In fact, most cases of HPV cause genital warts, which your body usually fights off on its own.
If you’ve contracted the potentially cancerous type of HPV, your cells begin to change from normal to precancerous to cancerous over time. That’s why we strongly encourage our patients to schedule and keep their Pap smear appointments yearly.
What happens if my results are abnormal?
An abnormal Pap smear may indicate that you’ve contracted HPV, or simply that cellular abnormalities are present.
There are a few different types of cellular changes we can find in your cervix, with two that are more common (and less worrisome).
Atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance (ASCUS) aren’t usually a cause for concern, and a squamous intraepithelial lesion indicates that the abnormal cells may be precancerous and need additional monitoring.
You could also have more dangerous cellular abnormalities. One is atypical glandular cells, and others are squamous cell cancer or adenocarcinoma cells, which almost undoubtedly indicate cancerous changes.
Depending on the type of cells in your cervix, we have you come in for another Pap smear in 3-6 months, or we skip to more targeted testing.
If we’ve scheduled another Pap with you, it’s possible that your body may fight off the infection by itself during that time, and your follow-up Pap will return to normal. But if your Pap still comes back abnormal, we either wait another few months to test you again or try a different kind of testing.
Our recommendations vary depending on your personal health history and your family’s history of reproductive cancers.
The next step is usually a colposcopy. During this procedure, we insert a thin camera into your vagina to take a closer look at your cervix. We also take another small sample of cervical tissue for biopsy.
Results from your colposcopy can take several weeks. If you have precancerous or cancerous cells, we discuss your next steps in treating cancer.
Does cervical cancer have any other warning signs?
Pap smears aren’t the only way to determine if you have cervical cancer, and since you have the test only once every three years, we recommend knowing the other warning signs.
Talk to us if you notice:
- Bleeding between periods
- Bleeding after sex
- Pelvic pain
- Unusually heavy bleeding during periods
- Bleeding after menopause
- Unusual vaginal discharge
Those who have a weakened immune system, smoke, or have HPV are most at risk for cervical cancer and may consider being tested more frequently.
If you’ve been putting off a Pap smear because you’re worried about what an abnormal result means for your health, you may be worrying for no reason. Call us with your questions or send us a message online to schedule an appointment to talk to an expert about your options.