The female reproductive system is an amazing feat of engineering that not only performs complex functions, it’s also susceptible to uniquely female conditions, including cervical cancer.
Fortunately, Dr. George Papanicolaou, a pathologist at Cornell University Medical College in 1914, discovered that he could detect differences between normal and cancerous cervical cells using a smear of vaginal secretions.
Eventually, his technique came to be known as the Pap smear or Pap test, and it’s still used today to spot cervical cancer early.
At Woodstock Family Practice & Urgent Care in Woodstock, Georgia, Dr. James Lee offers Pap tests to our female patients as part of our comprehensive women’s health services.
Most Pap smears reveal that you’re healthy and good to go another three years before your next test. But if your results are abnormal, there’s no need to panic.
Here, Dr. Lee explains what your Pap test results mean, and how even an abnormal test can be good news.
Pap smear basics
The Pap smear is simply a test that checks for changes in your cervical cells. To perform the test, Dr. Lee needs a sample of cells from your cervix, the opening of your uterus, which is located at the top of your vagina.
You lie on our exam table with your feet in two stirrups that help you scoot down to the edge of the table.
With your legs apart, Dr. Lee gently inserts a smooth, slender instrument called a speculum into your vagina, and spreads the tool to hold open your vaginal walls. Then, he inserts a long probe with a swab at the tip to reach your cervix and collect a small sample of cells.
The procedure is quick and painless. We send your cell samples to a lab for further analysis and wait for the results.
What your Pap results mean
If your Pap test comes back with nothing out of the ordinary, you don’t need to have another one for three more years if you’re between the ages of 21 and 29. After 30, an all-clear Pap smear buys you another five Pap-smear-free years.
But if your Pap results are abnormal, you may need further and more frequent testing. Here’s why.
Your cervix is a thin layer of tissue between your vagina and uterus. During its normal lifespan, the cells in the lower layer of your cervix gradually rise to the top and slough off, just as in other bodily tissues.
However, some of these cells may become damaged during the process and begin to grow differently. In some cases, these cells can become cancerous, so it’s important to find them early.
With regular Pap smears, Dr. Lee can compare your previous and current results and look for key changes. If the changes are minor, he may recommend a wait-and-see approach, but if they’re significant, you may need to take steps to treat the precancerous or cancerous cells before they develop.
Although no one wants their Pap smear to show anything but a healthy cervix, an abnormal result catches cancer early and may save your life, so it’s a good thing. Here’s what your Pap smear may say:
No signs of cancer.
Atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance
This is the most common Pap smear result. If you see this term on your Pap test, it means cell changes have been detected, and they may be precancerous. This result also typically indicates that you’re positive for the human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV is the No. 1 cause of cervical cancer, but don’t worry just yet. About 80% of all sexually active women under the age of 30 have asymptomatic HPV, but they usually overcome it by age 30. That’s why we don’t start performing HPV screens on women until they’re 30.
If you have abnormal cervical cells or a positive HPV test at this age, you may need to get tested more frequently.
Squamous intraepithelial lesion
If we see abnormal changes in your cervical cells that may be precancerous, you’ll see the term “squamous intraepithelial lesion” or SIL on your test results. If it’s low-grade SIL, it’ll probably go away on its own. If it’s high-grade SIL, you’re at risk for developing cancer.
Atypical squamous cells, cannot exclude HSIL
If your results show that you have clear changes in your cervical cells that may or may not be high-grade SIL, we schedule you for further testing.
Atypical glandular cells
If you have atypical glandular cells, it’s a strong indicator of precancer in your cervix or uterus. The good news is that we can start early treatment.
In the event that we detect cancerous cells that have already begun to take hold in your cervix or uterus, we guide you through your next steps in treatment.
Regular Pap smears help you and Dr. Lee keep an eye on your cervical health and catch the earliest sign of cancer when it’s easy to treat. Don’t risk it. Schedule your Pap smear at Woodstock Family Practice & Urgent Care today. Call us or book online.