Do atypical cells usually mean cancer?
Answer From Tatnai Burnett, M.D.
On occasion you may see a report from a Pap test or tissue biopsy stating "atypical cells present." This might cause you to worry that this means cancer, but atypical cells aren't necessarily cancerous.
Many factors can make normal cells appear atypical, including inflammation and infection. Even normal aging can make cells appear abnormal.
Atypical cells can change back to normal cells if the underlying cause is removed or resolved. This can happen spontaneously. Or it can be the result of a specific treatment.
Atypical cells don't necessarily mean you have cancer. However, it's still important to make sure there's no cancer present or that a cancer isn't just starting to develop.
If your doctor identifies atypical cells, close follow-up is essential. In some cases, your doctor may simply monitor the atypical cells to make sure they don't become more abnormal. Other tests or scans may be useful, depending on your specific circumstances.
In other cases, your doctor may recommend a particular treatment to try to reverse the process that's causing the atypical cells. And sometimes, your doctor may need to obtain a sample of tissue — such as a biopsy — to make sure you don't have cancer or another serious condition.
Tatnai Burnett, M.D.
Nov. 11, 2020
- Understanding cervical changes: Next steps after an abnormal screening test. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/types/cervical/understanding-cervical-changes. Accessed Oct. 1, 2020.
- HPV and Pap testing. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/types/cervical/pap-hpv-testing-fact-sheet. Accessed Oct. 1, 2020.