Pap smears (or Pap tests) play an important role in helping identify cervical cancer in its early stages. Worldwide, about a half million new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed every year, making it the second most common cancer-related death in women.
Because Pap smears are so inextricably linked with diagnosing cervical cancer, it’s no wonder that news of an abnormal result can cause a lot of anxiety. But not all abnormal Pap smears are an indicator of something more serious, and having follow-up tests is critical to determining if the result is due to cancer or another cause.
At his practice in Newburgh, Indiana, which serves the Evansville area, Paul W. Morrison, M.D., uses a special exam called colposcopy to help determine the cause of abnormal Pap smear results. Here’s how colposcopy works and why having routine Pap smears is so important for your health.
The Pap smear gets its name from Georgios Papanikolaou, the doctor who pioneered the test’s use in screening for cervical cancer in the first half of the 20th century. While Dr. Papanikolaou’s name is largely forgotten today, the test that bears a portion of his name remains the gold standard for early diagnosis of cervical cancer.
Pap tests are simple and take just a few moments to perform. Most Pap tests are performed during routine pelvic exams, but they can also be performed as standalone tests in women with certain symptoms.
During the test, Dr. Morrison uses a long swab to extract a small sample of cells from the cervix, which is the opening of your uterus. These cells are examined under a microscope.
Abnormal changes in these cells can be an early warning sign of cervical cancer. But, very often, abnormal results are associated with noncancerous issues, such as benign hormonal changes or underlying STDs, including the incredibly common human papillomavirus, or HPV.
If your Pap test results are abnormal, Dr. Morrison will perform a follow-up exam to find out why. And, if needed, he’ll discuss treatment options.
Depending on your results, your medical history, and other factors, he might perform a second Pap test to confirm the first test’s results, or he may decide to perform a different type of exam called a colposcopy.
A colposcopy also examines the cells on your cervix. With this procedure, Dr. Morrison positions a colposcope — which has a very strong light and a magnifier — a few inches from your vulva. He then looks through it to view any suspicious cells. During the colposcopy, Dr. Morrison often takes a small sample or biopsy from the cervix. This tissue sample can be examined under a microscope to determine the cause of your abnormal Pap results.
Like Pap smears, a colposcopy exam is performed in the office, and it takes about five minutes to complete. Results are usually ready in 1-2 weeks.
Very often, abnormal Pap results are caused by HPV infections. For many women, these infections clear up on their own.
For other types of infections, Dr. Morrison may prescribe antibiotics or other treatments. You’ll probably need to have additional follow-up Pap tests to make sure the infection clears.
If a Pap test does show signs of cervical cancer, Dr. Morrison will prescribe additional testing or treatment based on your specific needs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises all women to have Pap tests every three years beginning at age 21. If you have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer, or if you have an abnormal Pap test result, you might need to have Pap tests more frequently.
Having Pap tests on a regular basis is one of the best things you can do to stay healthy. To schedule your Pap smear, book an appointment online or over the phone with the practice of Paul W. Morrison, M.D. today.