Does an Abnormal Pap Smear Mean I Have Cancer?

Jul 12, 2023
Does an Abnormal Pap Smear Mean I Have Cancer?
Regular Pap testing is the best preventive tool against cervical cancer. Finding out that your Pap smear results are abnormal can be worrisome, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. Learn more here.

Each year in the United States, approximately 11,500 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and more than 4,000 women will die of the disease. These numbers have held fairly steady — neither increasing nor declining significantly — for many years.  

Women’s health experts are still working tirelessly to improve these statistics–they’re far lower than they were a few decades ago–when invasive cervical cancer was a leading cause of cancer-related death among American women. 

 The difference between then and now? 

More and more women are having regular cervical cancer screenings using the Pap smear test. Thanks to Pap testing, far fewer women are dying from cervical cancer — and far more women are surviving it — than ever before. 

As board-certified women’s wellness experts who specialize in cervical cancer screening and follow-up at Glendale Obstetrics and Gynecology, PC, in Glendale, Arizona, our skilled team understands that it can be stressful to hear your Pap test results are abnormal. But we also know that abnormal Pap results don’t always indicate cancer. Here’s what you should know.     

A short tutorial on Pap smear and HPV testing 

Cervical cancer screening (Pap smear testing) is generally recommended every three years for women between the ages of 21 and 65. Starting at the age of 30, you may opt to have:

  • A Pap test every three years
  • An HPV test every five years
  • A combined Pap/HPV test every five years

Although HPV is common in young adult women, it often goes away on its own; HPV testing is most beneficial for women aged 30 and older.  

Pap testing 

Done during a routine pelvic exam, a Pap smear is the only way to detect abnormal cervical cells before they become malignant, or catch cancer cells early, in their most treatable stage.

To perform Pap testing, we use a slender brush to gently swab a few cells from the tissues in and around your cervix, or the part of your uterus that opens into your vagina. We evaluate these cell samples under a microscope to check for cancers and precancers, or abnormal cell changes that have the potential to become cancerous without intervention.

HPV testing 

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a group of related viruses. While several types of HPV can be transmitted sexually, only two “high-risk” types — HPV types 16 and 18 — are responsible for about 70% of cervical cancers and precancerous lesions. 

Because most cervical cancer cases are associated with high-risk HPV, HPV testing, should you opt to have it, is conducted at the same time as a Pap smear. Just like the Pap test, we simply collect a swab of cells from your cervix and check them for a high-risk HPV infection.   

I received abnormal Pap test results — now what?

Given that a Pap test is designed to detect and prevent cervical cancer, it’s understandable that most women worry when they learn their test shows abnormal results. We’d like to put your mind at ease about what abnormal results really mean. 

Abnormal cell changes

Most abnormal results do not indicate cervical cancer — they indicate the presence of cervical cell changes that may lead to cancer without intervention. Typically, these abnormal changes are the result of a high-risk HPV infection; most women who have abnormal Pap results have a positive HPV test, too.  

Low-grade changes

Cervical cell changes are classified based on their degree of abnormality. Minor, low-grade cell changes often go back to normal on their own. This means they usually require little more than watchful waiting, usually in the form of more frequent Pap tests.  

High-grade changes

Serious, high-grade cell changes, however, are more likely to progress into cervical cancer if they aren’t removed. High-grade changes are often referred to as cervical “precancers.”

Next possible steps after an abnormal Pap smear

If your Pap results show serious, high-grade cell changes, your first follow-up step may be a diagnostic colposcopy. This quick in-office procedure helps determine the severity of your cell changes with a high degree of accuracy. 

Treatment for abnormal cells

Once you receive your colposcopy results, we may advise further treatment to eliminate any remaining abnormal cells. This often means having a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP). 

Widely considered the best way to remove remaining precancerous or cancerous cells before they have a chance to evolve or spread, LEEP uses a slim wire loop with an electric current to surgically remove a thin layer of cervical tissue.  

Regular cervical cancer screenings are life saving 

To learn more about abnormal Pap results or schedule a follow-up exam at Glendale Obstetrics and Gynecology, PC, give us a call today, or click online to schedule a visit with Diana Heard, MD, or Nicola Maurer, NP, any time.