Work-up of Abnormal Pap Test Results


The first step in finding cervical cancer is often an abnormal Pap test result. This will lead to further tests, which can diagnose cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer may also be suspected if you have symptoms like abnormal vaginal bleeding or pain during sex. Your primary doctor or gynecologist often can do the tests needed to diagnose pre-cancers and cancers and may also be able to treat a pre-cancer.

If there is a diagnosis of invasive cancer, your doctor should refer you to a gynecologic oncologist, a doctor who specializes in cancers of women's reproductive systems.

Tests for women with symptoms of cervical cancer or abnormal Pap test results

Medical history and physical exam

First, the doctor will ask you about your personal and family medical history. This includes information related to risk factors and symptoms of cervical cancer. A complete physical exam will help evaluate your general state of health. The doctor will do a pelvic exam and may do a Pap test if one has not already been done. In addition, your lymph nodes will be felt for evidence of metastasis (cancer spread).

The Pap test is a screening test, not a diagnostic test. It cannot tell for certain if you have cervical cancer. An abnormal Pap test result may mean more testing, sometimes including tests to see if a cancer or a pre-cancer is actually present. The tests that are used include colposcopy (with biopsy), endocervical scraping and cone biopsies.

Colposcopy

If you have certain symptoms that are worrisome for cancer or if your Pap test shows abnormal cells, you will need to have a test called colposcopy. You will lie on the exam table as you do with a pelvic exam. A speculum will be placed in the vagina to help the doctor see the cervix. The doctor will use a colposcope to examine the cervix. The colposcope is an instrument that stays outside the body and has magnifying lenses. It lets the doctor see the surface of the cervix closely and clearly. Colposcopy itself usually causes no more discomfort than any other speculum exam. It can be done safely even if you are pregnant. Like the Pap test, it is better not to have it during your menstrual period.

At the time of the procedure, the doctor will apply a weak solution of acetic acid (similar to vinegar) to your cervix to make any abnormal areas easier to see. If an abnormal area is seen, a biopsy (removal of a small piece of tissue) will be done. The tissue is sent to a lab to be looked at under a microscope. A biopsy is the best way to tell for certain whether an abnormal area is a pre-cancer, a true cancer, or neither. Although the colposcopy procedure is usually not painful, the cervical biopsy can cause discomfort, cramping, bleeding, or even pain in some women.

Cervical biopsies

Several types of biopsies can be used to diagnose cervical pre-cancers and cancers. After these procedures, patients may feel mild cramping or pain and may also have some light bleeding.

Colposcopic biopsy

For this type of biopsy, the cervix is examined with a colposcope to find the abnormal areas. A local anesthetic may then be used to numb the cervix before the biopsy. Using biopsy forceps, a small section of the abnormal area is removed.

Endocervical curettage (endocervical scraping)

Sometimes the transformation zone (the area at risk for HPV infection and pre-cancer) cannot be seen with the colposcope, so something else must be done to check that area for cancer. This means taking a scraping of the endocervix by inserting a narrow instrument (called a curette) into the endocervical canal (the part of the cervix closest to the uterus). The curette is used to scrape the inside of the canal to remove some of the tissue, which is then sent to the lab for examination.

Cone biopsy

In this procedure, also known as conization, the doctor removes a cone-shaped piece of tissue from the cervix. The tissue removed in the cone includes the transformation zone where cervical pre-cancers and cancers are most likely to start.

A cone biopsy is not only used to diagnose pre-cancers and cancers. It can also be used as a treatment since it can sometimes completely remove pre-cancers and some very early cancers.

The methods commonly used for cone biopsies are the loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), also called the large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ), and the cold knife cone biopsy. With both procedures, you might have mild cramping and some bleeding for a few weeks.

  • Loop electrosurgical procedure (LEEP or LLETZ):  In this method, the tissue is removed with a thin wire loop that is heated by electricity and acts as a small knife. For this procedure, a local anesthetic is used, and it can be done in your doctor's office. 
  • Cold knife cone biopsy: This method uses a surgical scalpel or a laser instead of a heated wire to remove tissue. ·  You will receive anesthesia during the operation (either a general anesthesia, where you are asleep, or a spinal or epidural anesthesia, where an injection into the area around the spinal cord makes you numb below the waist) and it is done in a hospital.

Having any type of cone biopsy will not prevent most women from getting pregnant, but if a large amount of tissue has been removed, women may have a higher risk of giving birth prematurely.

What tests will I need?

The tests (or treatment) you will need depend on the results of the Pap test.

The specific results of your Pap test, along with your age, will guide your doctor to the next step. It may involve a follow-up Pap test in a year, an HPV test, or one of the procedures above. Your doctor will most likely use the guidelines for abnormal Pap test results from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) when deciding on what follow-up plan is best for you.


The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: November 20, 2016 Last Revised: December 9, 2016

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