How a Pap Smear Detects Cancer and Precancers

From our friends at Adventist Health Portland:

Female Doctor Meeting With Teenage Patient In Exam Room

More than 13,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed each year with cervical cancer, a disease that develops in the narrow opening at the base of the uterus. But a simple cervical cancer test can stop this deadly disease in its tracks.

While cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in women worldwide, it is much less deadly today thanks to a common screening — the Pap smear — that helps catch problems before they become serious.

A Pap smear is a routine part of any well-woman exam. Read on to learn how your provider uses this quick procedure to look for cancer before it starts.

What is a Pap smear?

A Pap smear is a test that looks for abnormal cells in the cervix that could lead to cancer. Your primary care provider or gynecologist conducts a pelvic exam and takes a sample of tissue from the cervix to be tested in a lab.

What if my test results are abnormal?

If your Pap smear shows abnormal results, your provider may recommend additional testing to determine a care plan. They may use a colposcope, which has a strong magnifying lens, to look more closely at the cervix. During this exam, your provider might take a small piece of tissue for more thorough lab testing to look for precancers.

What are precancers?

Precancers are abnormal cells from the cervix that could mutate into cancer if untreated. Not all abnormal cells will develop into cancer, but some could become cancerous over time. The good news is, when we detect precancerous cells, they can be safely removed before they turn into cancer.

Given the test’s effectiveness, it’s important not to skip your Pap smear. Routine screenings are proven to reduce eventual cervical cancer diagnoses and ultimately save lives.

How often should I be screened?

Our family health guidelines recommend that women get Pap smears every three years starting at age 21. Depending on your results and family health history, your provider may recommend the screening every five years after age 30.

Schedule your Pap smear.

If you haven’t had a pelvic exam or Pap smear recently, talk to your provider. At Adventist Health Women’s Clinic, both OB/GYNs and certified nurse-midwives perform Pap smears and provide preventive gynecological care in addition to pregnancy care. Meet our team to learn more and schedule an appointment.

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