Women do not like going to their gynecologists for Pap test screenings, but they are necessary for spotting the early warning signs of cervical cancer. Your gynecologist will want to perform regular Pap smear tests and pelvic exams to identify the potential early stages of cervical cancer before it fully develops and creates a life-threatening situation for you.
Frequent Pap testing has caused a nearly 80% decrease in cervical cancer rates. When a Pap test discovers abnormal cervical cells in a woman, it will still take several more years before those abnormal cells develop into cancerous cells. This gives you enough time to receive the proper treatment to slow down the progression of the abnormal cells before they become cancerous.
The gynecologist community recommends women between 21 and 65 receive a Pap screening every 3 to 5 years. And if a Pap test comes back positive, the woman should get a Pap test every 12 months so their gynecologist can actively monitor the abnormal cells and ensure they have not grown too much.
Unfortunately, many countries in the world don’t have the resources to offer Pap screen testing to women. It is a major reason cervical cancer remains the number two most common cancer among women and the number three most common cancer to cause death in women.
How a Pap Smear Test Works
When a gynecologist performs a Pap smear test on a woman, he inspects her cervix to look for abnormal cell growth. The cervix is the narrow, muscular-like passage or tunnel extending to the lower part of the uterus. It establishes a canal-like area in the middle of the vagina and uterus.
The gynecologist does not check for signs of human papillomavirus (HPV), the number two cause of cervical cancer in women. However, gynecologists can perform a separate HPV test to check for signs of an HPV infection if desired. Most gynecologists recommend women get an HPV test and Pap smear test simultaneously. It is the best way to pinpoint whether HPV is the cause of abnormal cervical cell growth if it is detected.
What is an Abnormal Pap Test Result
An abnormal Pap test result indicates that your cervical cells appear unusual. It does not mean the cells are cancerous or precancerous. In fact, the abnormal cells are often due to a bacterial infection, yeast infection, hormonal changes, vaginal cream, douching, or something unrelated to cancer. But if it is precancerous, your doctor must continuously monitor the cervix to ensure the abnormal cells do not grow or spread too much.
Try not to douche, engage in sexual intercourse, or use vaginal creams, medicines, or gels for at least 48 hours before the Pap smear test. Ask your doctor for more clarification on preparing for your Pap test.
Next Step After Abnormal Pap Test Results
The National Institutes of Health indicate that 3.8% of all Pap smear tests return positive (abnormal) results. It is a high percentage when considering the millions of women taking these tests each year. Fortunately, most positive test results are due to something other than cancer, such as a vaginal infection or cervical infection.
If you receive abnormal Pap test results, the next step is to have follow-up appointments with your gynecologist. They may want to give you another Pap test to see if the same results come back and to ensure the previous results were not erroneous.
If the second Pap test still shows abnormal cervical cell growth, your gynecologist will probably want to perform a cervical biopsy or colposcopy to remove a sample of your cervical tissue or cells. The cervical cell sample will be sent to a laboratory, where it will be studied closely under a microscope.
A cervical biopsy could also be used to remove the abnormal cervical cells, tissues, or lesions altogether. It all depends on the severity of the abnormal cell growth.
Will My Abnormal Cervical Cells Cause a Worse Condition in the Future?
If you recently received abnormal Pap test results, the abnormalities could cause a worse condition in the future, like cancer, if precancerous cells are discovered. But you can slow down and possibly reverse the precancerous cell growth if you seek regular treatment from your doctor.
Luckily, not all abnormal cervical cells turn into cancer. Cancer cell formation is quite random because it depends on enough specific mutations to occur to create uncontrollable cell growth and replication. So, if your doctor sees abnormalities in your cervical cells, those abnormalities might not get any worse if those specific mutations never occur.
Will an HPV Vaccine Offer Protection After Abnormal Pap Test Results?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that about 93% of all cervical cancer cases are preventable if the patients get HPV vaccinations and regular Pap testing. So yes, women should get the HPV vaccine to protect against nine high-risk HPV strains known to cause cancer.
An HPV vaccine could still offer protection if you have abnormal Pap test results because only a single HPV strain could be causing those results. Getting the HPV vaccine will still give you protection against other high-risk HPV strains which you may not have contracted yet. That is why the HPV vaccine is still good to get regardless of your abnormal Pap test results.
Just remember to keep seeking treatment and testing from your gynecologist to ensure the abnormal cervical cells do not have a chance to grow and develop into cancer. An HPV vaccine may offer protection, but the protection is not 100% guaranteed.
You need to do everything possible to reduce the risk of cervical cancer. This means getting consistent Pap and HPV testing and whatever treatments your gynecologist recommends.