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Finding cervical cancer often starts with an abnormal HPV (human papillomavirus) or Pap test result. This will lead to further tests, which can diagnose cervical cancer or pre-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.
Your current screening test results along with your past test results, determine your risk of developing cervical cancer. Your doctor will use them to figure out your next test or treatment. It could be a follow-up screening test in a year, a colposcopy, or one of the other procedures discussed below to treat any pre-cancers that might be found.
Because there are many different follow-up or treatment options depending on your specific risk of developing cervical cancer, it is best to talk to your healthcare provider about your screening results in more detail, to fully understand your risk of cervical cancer and what follow-up plan is best for you.
The Pap test and HPV test are screening tests, not diagnostic tests. They cannot tell for certain if you have cervical cancer. An abnormal Pap test or HPV test result may mean more testing is needed to see if a cancer or a pre-cancer is present. The tests that are used include colposcopy (with biopsy), endocervical scraping and cone biopsies.
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. You will have a pelvic exam and maybe a Pap test if one has not already been done. In addition, your lymph nodes will be felt to see if the cancer has spread (metastasis).
If you have certain symptoms that could mean cancer, if your Pap test shows abnormal cells, or if your HPV test is positive, you will most likely 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 more easily with a colposcope. The colposcope is an instrument that stays outside the body and has magnifying lenses. It lets the doctor see the surface of the cervix up close 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 small piece of tissue will be removed (biopsy) and sent to a lab to be looked at carefully. A biopsy is the best way to tell for certain if an abnormal area is a pre-cancer, a true cancer, or neither.
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.
For this type of biopsy, the cervix is examined with a colposcope. Using biopsy forceps, a small section of the abnormal area is removed.
Endocervical curettage (endocervical scraping)
If colposcopy does not show any abnormal areas or if the transformation zone (the area at risk for HPV infection and pre-cancer) cannot be seen with the colposcope, another method must be used to check that area for cancer.
A narrow instrument (either a curette or brush) is inserted into the endocervical canal (the part of the cervix closest to the uterus). The curette or brush is used to scrape the inside of the canal to remove some of the tissue, which is then sent to the lab to be checked.
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.
Two common types of cone biopsies are:
Possible complications of cone biopsies include bleeding, infection and narrowing of the cervix.
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.
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Eifel P, Klopp AH, Berek JS, and Konstantinopoulos A. Chapter 74: Cancer of the Cervix, Vagina, and Vulva. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.
Fontham, ETH, Wolf, AMD, Church, TR, et al. Cervical Cancer Screening for Individuals at Average Risk: 2020 Guideline Update from the American Cancer Society. CA Cancer J Clin. 2020. https://doi.org/10.3322/caac.21628.
Jhungran A, Russell AH, Seiden MV, Duska LR, Goodman A, Lee S, et al. Chapter 84: Cancers of the Cervix, Vulva, and Vagina. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2020.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Cervical Cancer. Version 4.2019. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/cervical.pdf on October 31, 2019.
Perkins RB, Guido RS, Castle PE, et al. 2019 ASCCP Risk-Based Management Consensus Guidelines for Abnormal Cervical Cancer Screening Tests and Cancer Precursors. J Low Genit Tract Dis. 2020;24(2):102-131. doi:10.1097/LGT.0000000000000525.
Last Revised: July 30, 2020