The Pap smear can alert your doctor to the presence of suspicious cells that need further testing.

Normal results

If only normal cervical cells were discovered during your Pap smear, you're said to have a negative result. You won't need any further treatment or testing until you're due for your next Pap smear and pelvic exam.

Abnormal results

If abnormal or unusual cells were discovered during your Pap smear, you're said to have a positive result. A positive result doesn't mean you have cervical cancer. What a positive result means depends on the type of cells discovered in your Pap smear.

Here are some terms your doctor might use and what your next course of action might be:

  • Atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance (ASCUS). Squamous cells are thin and flat and grow on the surface of a healthy cervix. In the case of ASCUS, the Pap smear reveals slightly abnormal squamous cells, but the changes don't clearly suggest that precancerous cells are present. With the liquid-based test, your doctor can reanalyze the sample to check for the presence of viruses known to promote the development of cancer, such as some types of human papillomavirus (HPV). If no high-risk viruses are present, the abnormal cells found as a result of the test aren't of great concern. If worrisome viruses are present, you'll need further testing.
  • Squamous intraepithelial lesion. This term is used to indicate that the cells collected from the Pap smear may be precancerous. If the changes are low grade, it means the size, shape and other characteristics of the cells suggest that if a precancerous lesion is present, it's likely to be years away from becoming a cancer. If the changes are high grade, there's a greater chance that the lesion may develop into cancer much sooner. Additional diagnostic testing is necessary.
  • Atypical glandular cells. Glandular cells produce mucus and grow in the opening of your cervix and within your uterus. Atypical glandular cells may appear to be slightly abnormal, but it's unclear whether they're cancerous. Further testing is needed to determine the source of the abnormal cells and their significance.
  • Squamous cell cancer or adenocarcinoma cells. This result means the cells collected for the Pap smear appear so abnormal that the pathologist is almost certain a cancer is present. "Squamous cell cancer" refers to cancers arising in the flat surface cells of the vagina or cervix. "Adenocarcinoma" refers to cancers arising in glandular cells. If such cells are found, your doctor will recommend prompt evaluation.

If your Pap smear is abnormal, your doctor may perform a procedure called colposcopy using a special magnifying instrument (colposcope) to examine the tissues of the cervix, vagina and vulva. Your doctor also may take a tissue sample (biopsy) from any areas that appear abnormal. The tissue sample is then sent to a laboratory for analysis and a definitive diagnosis.

Oct. 31, 2012