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How a Pap Smear Detects Cancer and Precancers

Women's Health

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? Read on to learn how your provider uses this quick procedure to look for cancer before it starts.

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. They may use a colposcope, which has a strong magnifying lens, to look more closely at the cervix. 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. 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, it's important not to skip your Pap smear. Routine screenings are proven to reduce eventual cervical cancer diagnoses and ultimately save lives.

How often should I be screened?

Our family health guidelines recommend that women get Pap smears every 3 years starting at age 21. Depending on your results and family health history, your provider may recommend the screening every 5 years after age 30. 

Schedule your Pap smear

If you haven't had a pelvic exam or Pap smear recently, talk to your provider. At Adventist Health Women's Clinic, both OB/GYNs and certified nurse-midwives perform Pap smears and provide preventative gynecological care in addition to pregnancy care. Meet our team to learn more and schedule an appointment.