If you’ve ever received a phone call from your doctor’s office saying your Pap test results came back abnormal, you understand the shiver of anxiety that accompanies this news. Most women know the Pap test is an important tool for diagnosing cervical cancer, but today’s Pap does much more than that. And an abnormal result usually isn’t cause for alarm.
WHAT IS A PAP TEST?
The Pap test checks for abnormal cells in the tissue of your cervix. A part of the female reproductive system, the cervix is the muscular opening between the vagina and the uterus. The Pap test can detect many different types of changes in cervical cells — most of them non-cancerous.
Current guidelines recommend you get your first Pap test at age 21. If that test is normal, you should get a repeat Pap test every three years. After age 30, if you have no history of abnormal Pap test results, you can reduce your Pap screening to every five years. Check with your primary care provider to set up a schedule that’s right for you, taking into account any family history of cervical cancer.
WHAT IS AN ABNORMAL PAP TEST RESULT?
It’s not uncommon for a woman to learn her Pap test came back “unclear” or “abnormal.” What does this mean? An “unclear” Pap test result means your cervical cells appear to be abnormal, but the lab couldn’t tell for sure. In this case, your provider may want you to come back for a second Pap test to see if he or she can obtain better results.
An “abnormal” Pap test result indicates some of the cervical cells in your sample definitely do not look like normal cervical tissue cells. This does not necessarily mean you have cervical cancer. In fact, an “abnormal” Pap test often resolves on its own because many things, such as temporary tissue inflammation or the presence of human papilloma virus (HPV), can cause changes in the cervical cells.
Usually, if your Pap test result is abnormal, your provider will take another sample to confirm the first result. It’s not uncommon for the second sample to return a “normal” result. Rarely, an abnormal Pap test indicates cervical cancer. If your provider suspects cancer, he or she will do more testing to confirm this result.
PREVENTION AND TREATMENT OF ABNORMAL PAP TEST RESULTS
Because HPV is the biggest culprit in causing an abnormal Pap test result, you should practice safe sex at all times. Hormonal birth control methods (such as the pill) do not protect you against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). And while a condom does not guarantee complete protection against getting HPV from a partner, since the genital warts caused by HPV can occur in the entire genital area, it’s still better than doing nothing.
If you receive an abnormal Pap test result, your provider may recommend you get HPV-specific testing done in addition to repeating the Pap test. If you test positive for HPV, your provider will advise you what steps to take next.
If you are under age 26, you can consider getting vaccinated against HPV. Vaccination should give you a lifetime of protection against this primary cause of cervical cancer. Talk to your doctor about whether the HPV vaccine is right for you.
ABNORMAL PAP TEST RESULT: NOT SO SCARY, AFTER ALL
Above all, keep in mind an abnormal Pap test result is not uncommon and usually does not indicate cancer. If your Pap result is abnormal, just follow your provider’s advice about what to do next.