Pap smears are one of the best preventive and diagnostic tools used to screen for cervical cancer. Typically, you get a Pap smear, sometimes called a Pap test, at your yearly OB/GYN exam. While an abnormal Pap smear can be a scary result, it doesn’t always mean you have cancer.
At New England Women’s Healthcare, our board-certified OB/GYN experts offer Pap smears to women in and around Woburn and Wilmington, Massachusetts. If your test is abnormal, the team provides compassionate care and diagnostic testing to rule out cervical cancer.
Understanding a Pap smear
A Pap smear is a screening tool for cancer. During a Pap smear, cells are taken from your cervix using a small swab. Those cells are then sent off to a lab and are analyzed for precancerous changes.
This test is typically performed at your well-woman exam, either yearly or every three years, depending on your overall health and other factors. A Pap smear isn’t typically painful, but it can cause some slight cramping or discomfort during the swabbing of your cervix.
A Pap smear is also used to check for human papillomavirus (HPV). This virus is one of the main causes of cell changes and cervical cancer. Regular Pap smears help to detect cancer early and prevent it from progressing.
How is a Pap smear performed?
When you’re due for your Pap smear, you come into the office and get undressed and into a gown. You then sit on the exam table while the team asks you questions pertaining to your female health.
When it’s time for the test, you lie back on the table and put your feet into stirrups on the bed. This allows for your comfort, and for the team to have access into your vagina and cervix for the exam.
You’re asked to relax and allow your legs to fall outward. One of our doctors then inserts an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. You can expect to feel some pressure but not pain.
Once the speculum is in, our provider can see into your cervix, allowing them to do a visual exam. The doctor then obtains the cell sample with the swab and places it in a tube for the lab.
After the speculum exam is done, the doctor may do an exam with their fingers, feeling for any abnormal lumps around your uterus and ovaries. Once the exam is finished, you can clean up and change back into your clothes.
Understanding your results
When you get your results from your Pap smear, it can be worrisome if the result was abnormal. However, a positive result doesn’t necessarily mean you have cervical cancer.
An abnormal Pap smear simply means there are abnormal cells in your cervix. This could be due to a number of reasons. The most common cause of these abnormal cells is HPV.
Other causes of abnormal cervical cells include:
- Atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance
- Squamous intraepithelial lesion
- Glandular cells that are atypical
- Squamous cell cancer
- Adenocarcinoma cells
Each result has its own cancer risk and significance. In most cases, more testing is needed to find out if you’re at risk for cancer.
What’s the next step?
In many cases, abnormal Pap results simply mean there are cell changes, but not necessarily cancer. However, cell changes can lead to cancer if not addressed right away.
The team at New England Women’s Healthcare takes your health very seriously, and further investigates the cause of abnormal cells. The next step in most cases of abnormal Pap smear results is a colposcopy.
A colposcopy is similar to a Pap smear, and is done with a speculum like your other exam. However, in this test, our team uses a colposcope to get a better look at your cervix. This tool has a light and lens on the end to allow the doctor to better visualize your cervix.
If any areas look suspicious, the team takes a biopsy, or skin sample, and sends it to the lab for further testing. This helps determine if cancer is present, or if you’re at risk for cancer in the near future.
The next steps are either getting rid of your abnormal cells through cryosurgery or the LEEP procedure. This permanently eradicates the suspicious cells, eliminating any cancer concern from these cells.
If you need to have your annual Pap smear completed, call one of our offices in Wilmington or Woburn to schedule a consultation. You may also request an appointment on our webpage.