Cervical Cancer Facts

Prevention | Pap Test | Before You Have Symptoms | Cervical Cancer Vaccine

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Can You Get Checked for Cervical Cancer Before You Have Symptoms?

Screening tests check for signs of cancer in people who don't have any symptoms. Screening for cervical cancer has been very successful. That's why experts recommend screening for cervical cancer for all women. It is the only gynecological cancer that can be prevented with regular screening.

You have a better chance of surviving cervical cancer if your doctor finds and treats it early. The best way to find cervical cancer early is to have a regular Pap test. A Pap test is used to remove a few cells from your cervix to see if there are any cell changes that are cause for concern. A pathologist, a doctor that specializes in diagnosing abnormal tissues, looks at the removed cells under a microscope to see if there are any cells that are abnormal.

What to Know About Precancerous Changes in Your Cervix

Cervical cancer starts with changes in the cells that are on the surface of the cervix, which is the area that connects your vagina to your uterus. Doctors use a Pap test to find such cell changes. The Pap test can detect cervical cancer cells and precancerous changes.

In the vast majority of cases, women with cell changes do not have cervical cancer. But if a Pap test shows you have cell changes, you should follow up and protect yourself by getting any tests and treatments that your doctor suggests. When your doctor finds and treats precancerous changes early, you can likely prevent cervical cancer.

What does having precancerous changes mean? It simply means the pathologist sees abnormal cervical cells. Abnormal cells are also called atypical cells. Although these cells are not completely cancerous, they are considered precancerous. They might turn into cancer if not found and treated early enough. There are no predictive tests to be able to predict which women that have abnormal cells will go on to develop cervical cancer.

Precancerous cells may also be called dysplasia or squamous intraepithelial lesions (SIL). There are 2 types of SIL.

  • Low-grade SIL. In this type of SIL, changes appear to be just starting. There may be changes in the size, shape, or number of cells that are on the surface of the cervix. The cells have only a few abnormal traits, so they are more like normal cells. Other common names for low-grade SIL are human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, mild dysplasia, or cervical intraepithelial neoplasia type I (CIN I). CIN I means there are mild abnormalities that rarely turn into cervical cancer. This condition may progress if it's not treated. But it usually goes away on its own without any treatment.
  • High-grade SIL. In this type of SIL, the cells look very abnormal under the microscope. However, these cells are still found only on the surface of the cervix and have not yet invaded the deepest parts of the cervix. These cells are also called moderate or severe dysplasia, CIN II, CIN III, and carcinoma in situ. CIN II changes may become cancerous if it's not treated. CIN III is the most aggressive form of precancerous changes. There is a high risk of invasive cervical cancer if the abnormality is not treated. CIN III includes carcinoma in situ.

Many types of cell changes are not cancer. Inflammation, cysts, and even pregnancy can all cause changes in cervical cells. These changes are NOT considered precancerous or cancerous.

Understanding an Abnormal Pap Test

The Pap test has worked better than any other screening test in preventing cancer. But, like most screening tests, it is not perfect. Your Pap test may show that abnormal cells are present, when there are not. That's called a false positive test.

On the other hand, your Pap test results may show that cells look fine, when there are actually abnormal cells present. Because some precancerous changes may be missed, since a Pap test is not perfect, it is very important to follow a regular Pap test schedule.

Most experts agree that the benefits of possibly finding abnormal cells or cervical cancer outweigh the worry involved with incorrect results. If you are concerned about false results from your Pap test, discuss this with your doctor.

The most popular system for reporting Pap test results is The Bethesda System. This system was revised in 2001. Pap test results fall into these categories.

  • Negative for intraepithelial lesion or malignancy. This means the pathologist found no signs of cancer, precancerous changes, or other significant abnormalities.
  • Epithelial cell abnormalities. This means that the cells lining the cervix are beginning to change. Such abnormalities could mean a cancer or precancer has started.
  • Other malignant neoplasms. This category means other forms of cancer such as melanoma or lymphomas are present. This is very rare.

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