The Pap smear is the primary test used for the early detection of cervical cancer, the second most common cancer among women. But does getting an abnormal Pap result mean you have cancer? Absolutely not!
At her practice in Santa Monica, California, Tristan E. Bickman, MD, performs Pap smears as part of a routine pelvic exam and in women with specific circumstances, like abnormal bleeding. In this post, she offers a brief overview of pap smears and what happens if your results are abnormal.
Quick facts about Pap smears
Sometimes called a Pap test, a Pap smear isn’t really a test — it’s a screening tool. That means that rather than diagnose a condition, like cervical cancer, it looks for signs or cellular changes associated with cancer.
Performed during a routine pelvic exam, a Pap smear takes just a few moments to perform. During the test, Dr. Bickman uses a special swab to collect cells from the surface of your cervix, the “mouth” or opening of your uterus. The swab doesn’t enter the uterus, and the screening itself is painless.
After your test, the swab is sent to a lab where the cells are cultured and examined under a microscope. Dr. Bickman receives the results in about a week, after which you'll receive notification of your results, as well.
Pap smears aren’t definitive — they can sometimes yield a false result. That’s why medical groups recommend screening on a regular basis to increase the likelihood that subtle indications associated with cancer are caught as early as possible. Currently, the CDC recommends a Pap smear every three years for most women, although you might need to be screened more often depending on your health history.
Abnormal Pap results: What they mean
While abnormal Pap results can definitely cause anxiety, the good news is, most abnormal results aren’t caused by cancer. Other issues, like hormonal changes, yeast infections, or inflammation, are often the cause of those abnormal results. Human papillomavirus (HPV) infections are a common cause of abnormal Pap smear results, and most HPV infections clear up on their own over time.
If your Pap smear comes back with an abnormal result, it typically means you need to be screened or examined again. Depending on your history and other factors, Dr. Bickman may recommend an additional Pap smear or she may use an exam called a colposcopy.
This exam uses a light to see inside your vagina and examine your cervix for abnormal areas of tissue. Dr. Bickman may take additional cell samples or tissue samples (biopsy) for further evaluation.
In some instances, she may recommend a transvaginal ultrasound or other tests or exams to rule out cancer and identify the cause of your abnormal result, especially if you have other issues, like abnormal bleeding. She might recommend you come back in for another Pap smear in a year instead of waiting the usual three years between tests, too.
Schedule your Pap smear today
Pap smears take just a few minutes of your time, but they can provide you with a lifetime of better health and greater peace of mind. To schedule your screening, call 310-587-9280 or book an appointment online today.