Should you be concerned about an abnormal Pap smear?
Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer deaths among American women. Early detection screenings in the form of Pap tests, or Pap smears, have brought that number way down, allowing for detection of precancers which are easily treated.
“While it may seem like a scary thing to hear that your test results are abnormal, it does not mean that you have cervical cancer,” said Laura T. Wang, MD. In fact, of the 3 million women with abnormal Pap tests each year, which is one in 10 women, less than 1% will be diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Dr. Wang said an abnormal Pap result typically means one of three things:
- There is inflammation and probably nothing to worry about.
- You have human papillomavirus (HPV), which is common and often clears itself up.
- Your doctor has identified potentially precancerous cells.
What can an abnormal Pap test mean?
An abnormal Pap test result may simply mean more testing is needed, including:
- A follow-up Pap test
- An HPV test
- A more advanced procedure like a colposcopy (a microscopic examination of the cervix with biopsy and/or scraping)
Each of these procedures takes about 15 minutes and is usually done without anesthesia. For many women, cramping may occur during a portion of the procedure, similar to menstrual cramping. Most women can return to normal activities immediately following the procedure.
Dr. Wang said screening tests, like the Pap test, are your best defense against cervical cancer. Women ages 21–29 should have a Pap test every three years. Women ages 30–65 should have a Pap test and an HPV test every 3–5 years.