Most women are recommended to get a Pap smear every year. It’s an important test that can check on the health of your cervix and identify possible problems. Most of the time, you get a card in the mail that says your results are normal.
But, sometimes, your doctor says they found abnormal cells in your Pap smear. This can be scary but it doesn’t always mean bad news. For women in and around Arlington, Massachusetts, the team at Arlington Family Practice can guide you through this situation.
Causes of abnormal test results
First of all, don’t panic. Abnormal test results don’t necessarily mean that you have cancer. However, they’re still a sign that your Pap smear results are unusual.
The causes of abnormal test results can vary widely. Sometimes, the test indicates that you have abnormal cells of undetermined significance. This means that there’s no clear reason for the abnormal cells.
Other things that can cause abnormal test results include:
- A poor sample
- Using tampons or having sex within 24 hours of your Pap smear
Viruses, including herpes, trichomoniasis, or human papillomavirus (HPV), can also cause abnormal Pap smear results. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly all sexually active men and women eventually get HPV, the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. In most cases, your body fights off the infection within two years. In about 3% of the cases, the virus turns into cancer.
Types of abnormal cells
Test results can indicate different types of abnormal cells, including:
Atypical squamous cells
Slightly abnormal cells, also called atypical squamous cells, don’t suggest that they’re cancerous or precancerous. We can evaluate the test results to see if other viruses, such as HPV, are present. If no viruses are present, these abnormal cells shouldn’t be a problem.
Squamous intraepithelial lesions
Precancerous cells, also called squamous intraepithelial lesions, can be either low grade or high grade. Low-grade changes mean that the shape and size of the cells suggest that it may be years before the cells become precancerous. High-grade cell changes are at greater risk of becoming precancerous.
Atypical glandular cells
Atypical glandular cells can also show up on a Pap smear. Glandular cells are normal; they produce mucus and grow in your cervix and uterus. However, when the glandular cells are in any way atypical, the situation requires further examination.
Squamous cell cancer/adenocarcinoma cells
Squamous cell cancer or adenocarcinoma cells nearly always indicate the presence of cervical cancer. Squamous cell cancer occurs in the flat surfaces in the cervix or vagina. Adenocarcinoma is a type of cancer that occurs in the glandular cells.
How we treat abnormal test results
In most cases, we simply repeat the Pap smear to see if the results are repeated. This is particularly the case when we suspect a poor sample was taken or if the results are abnormal cells of undetermined significance.
The next step is to perform a procedure called a colposcopy. In a colposcopy, we use a microscope to examine the cells of your cervix. We use a special solution to separate normal cells from abnormal ones.
During a colposcopy, we also take a small sample of tissue from your cervix to biopsy. The biopsy result can make it clearer whether your abnormal cells are due to cancer.
Abnormal cells can be frozen, a process called cryosurgery, or removed with a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP).
If the cells are determined to be cancerous, treatment will depend on the grade and stage of the cancer.
It’s important to get your annual Pap smear so you can monitor the health of your reproductive system. It’s an essential screening tool designed to identify precancerous or cancerous changes as early as possible. Call our office today or schedule your appointment online.