The Truth About Abnormal Pap Smears

The American Cancer Society expects almost 14,500 new cases of cervical cancer to be diagnosed in the United States this year.

At Arlington Family Practice in Arlington, Massachusetts, we want to keep that number from rising even higher, so we recommend adult women receive a Pap smear (or Pap test) at least every three years to screen for the presence of cervical cancer before it becomes a problem.

The earlier we catch cervical cancer, the better chance we have of treating it. A Pap smear can even show the presence of precancerous cells, which gives us the opportunity to get rid of those cells before they can become cancerous.

If the results of your test come back abnormal, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. Here’s our rundown of what an abnormal Pap smear means.

What doesn’t an abnormal Pap smear mean?

During a Pap smear test, your doctor collects cells from inside your cervix, the lowest part of your uterus at the top of your vagina. These cells are then analyzed for the presence of cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, urinary tract or yeast infections, or any other irregularities.

An abnormal Pap smear doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer. One in 10 Pap smears come back abnormal, so it’s common to get this result.

If you get an abnormal result and are starting to panic, take a deep breath. 

What does an abnormal Pap smear mean?

An abnormal or positive result just means that some unusual cells were identified in your cervix. Here are the most common types of abnormal cells we usually find:

Atypical squamous cells

These thin, flat cells sit on the surface of your cervix. They may be slightly abnormal, but don’t clearly suggest precancerous cells are present. They may indicate the presence of HPV, or human papillomavirus. We let you know if more testing is needed.

Squamous intraepithelial lesions

These cells may be precancerous. The characteristics of these cells tell us whether they might develop into cancer soon or if that would be years away.

Atypical glandular cells

These produce mucus and appear to be abnormal, but it’s unclear if they’re actually cancerous. We recommend further testing of these cells.

Squamous cell cancer/adenocarcinoma cells

These cells almost certainly indicate that cancer is present, and we recommend immediate evaluation by a specialist.

If you need to schedule a Pap smear, or if you have questions about your test results, please contact Arlington Family Practice today. We’re glad to help! Just call our office or use our convenient online scheduler to set up an appointment. 

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