As a general rule, not hearing from your doctor after a medical test is usually a good sign. No news is good news, right? So, it’s definitely nerve wracking when your OB-GYN’s office calls to tell you that your PAP smear was abnormal.
Now, there’s no need to start writing a will and preparing for the worst just yet. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 3 million women will receive unclear or abnormal PAP results this year, but only 10,000 of those cases will actually indicate cervical cancer. So before panic sets in, here are some things you should know about abnormal PAP smears and what you need to do next.
“Abnormal” simply means change
When a PAP smear comes back abnormal, it simply means that cell changes were found on your cervix. However, those changes do not necessarily point to cancer. The cells are “abnormal” because they are not dying at the end of their usual life span or are dividing unusually.
Potential causes of abnormal cervical cells
Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
Most abnormal PAP results are caused by the sexually transmitted infection (STI) known as HPV. This infection is so common that almost every sexually active human will get at least one strain of it. In most cases, your body will clear an HPV infection on its own within 2 years. The strains to watch out for are 16 and 18. It generally takes 10-15 years for your cells to go from abnormal to cancerous because of HPV.
Other sexually transmitted infections
Some STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause inflammation in your cervical cells, which makes them look abnormal. Fortunately, these STIs are treatable with antibiotics, and you can protect yourself from contracting them in the first place by wearing condoms during sex.
When the delicate pH balance of the vagina is out of whack, you can develop yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis. These vaginal inflammations weaken your natural defenses and allow bacteria to grow in much higher amounts. Over-the-counter creams, home remedies, or anti-biotics will get you back on track.
Pregnancy, menopause, or smoking can also have an effect on cervical cells.
Your doctor will most likely recommend that you come back for a follow-up appointment to determine the cause of the cell changes. During your appointment, the gynecologist will perform a colposcopy by taking a closer look at your vagina through a specialized magnifying glass. They may also take a biopsy and send the sample off to a lab.
How to get rid of precancerous cells
If your abnormal cells turn out to be precancerous, there are several things your doctor can do to get rid of them once and for all.
Laser ablation – burn the cells with a laser
Cryotherapy – freeze the cells with a cold probe
Diathermy – uses electric current to snip away abnormal cervical tissue
Large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ) – similar to diathermy
Cone biopsy – surgically remove a cone-shaped area of your cervix
Hysterectomy – remove your uterus entirely
Whether you are due for a PAP smear or you want to find out more information about what your abnormal Pap smear results mean for our future, contact the caring and compassionate doctors at Women’s Healthcare Associates today!