Pap Smear: What is it & How to Find Precancers

Nov 18, 2022


A simple cervical cancer test can stop this deadly disease in its tracks.

Each year, more than 13,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer, a disease that develops in the narrow opening at the base of the uterus.

While cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in women worldwide, it is no longer nearly as deadly as it once was, thanks to a common screening — the Pap smear — that helps prevent problems before they occur.

A Pap smear is a routine part of any well-woman exam. But what exactly is your provider looking for? Tracy Burris, a family nurse practitioner at Adventist Health, shares what you should know.

What is a Pap smear?

A Pap smear is a test that looks for abnormal cells in the cervix that could lead to cancer. To do a Pap smear, your primary care provider or gynecologist conducts a pelvic exam and takes a sample of tissue from the cervix to be tested in a lab.

What if my test results are abnormal?

If your Pap smear shows abnormal results, your provider may recommend additional testing to determine a care plan. “We can use a colposcope, which has a strong magnifying lens, to look more closely at the cervix,” Burris says. “During this exam, your provider might take a small piece of tissue for more thorough lab testing to look for precancers.”

What are precancers?

Precancers are abnormal cells from the cervix that could mutate into cancer if untreated. “Not all abnormal cells will develop into cancer, but some could become cancerous over time,” Burris says. “The good news is that when we detect precancerous cells, they can be safely removed before they turn into cancer.”

Given the test’s effectiveness, Burris’ advice is clear: “Don’t skip your Pap smear. Routine screenings are proven to reduce eventual cervical cancer diagnoses and ultimately save lives.”

How often should I be screened?

Adventist Health providers recommend that women older than 21 have routine Pap smears — generally, every three years until at least age 65.

“Talk to your provider about the frequency that’s right for you,” says Tracy Burris. “If you’ve had an abnormal Pap smear in the past, you may need more frequent screenings.”

Schedule your Pap smear

Ask your primary care provider or OB-GYN about having a Pap smear at your next appointment.