Making sense of your Pap test results

July 16, 2015 Providence Health Team

Of all the gynecological cancers women face, cervical cancer is the easiest to prevent. That’s because a Pap test can alert a doctor to cell changes in the cervix.

This screening, also called a Pap smear, is recommended for all women starting at age 21. If your Pap test is normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait three years until your next test.

Don’t jump to cancer

But what if the test results are unclear or abnormal? There can be many reasons for such results – and they usually don’t mean you have cancer.

In fact, it’s estimated that each year in the United States more than 3 million women receive unclear or abnormal Pap smear results. About 10,000 of these women will actually have cervical cancer.

Understanding a Pap result

Let’s take a look at what a Pap result really means (looking for cell changes).

Normal: A normal result means that no cell changes were found on your cervix. This is good news. But there could be cell changes in the future, so you need to continue to get Pap tests.

Unclear: This is a common result. It means that some of your cervical cells look like they might be abnormal. These changes could be related to pregnancy, menopause or an infection.  Questionable cervical cells also could be related to the human papillomavirus, known as HPV. This virus is a sexually transmitted infection. It can cause abnormal cells and lead to cervical cancer. Experts recommend HPV testing for women 30 and older as part of a Pap screening.

Abnormal: This result means that there are cell changes on your cervix, and they are likely caused by HPV. If the changes are minor, or low grade, the cells usually return to normal on their own. But more serious changes, known as high grade, are often called “precancer.”  In most cases, treatment prevents cervical cancer from developing, so it is important to follow up with your doctor right away.

And if cervical cancer is detected, the earlier it is found, the easier it is to treat.

If it’s been three years since you’ve had a Pap test, or you need an HPV test, make an appointment with a Providence provider today.

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