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Diagnosing Cervical Cancer

How is Cervical Cancer Found?

Doctors recommend that women help reduce their risk of cervical cancer by having regular Pap tests. A Pap test (sometimes called Pap smear or cervical smear) is a simple test usually given by a gynecologist or a primary care physician that’s used to look at cervical cells. Pap tests can identify abnormal cells, often at an early stage, before they lead to cervical cancer.

Finding and treating abnormal cells can reduce the risk of cervical cancer developing. Also, the Pap test can help find cancer early, when treatment is more likely to be effective.

For most women, the Pap test is not painful. It’s done in a doctor’s office or clinic during a pelvic exam. The doctor or nurse scrapes a sample of cells from the cervix. A lab checks the cells under a microscope for cell changes. Most often, abnormal cells found by a Pap test are not cancerous. The same sample of cells may be tested for Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.

What Happens if the Pap Test Shows Abnormal Results?

If you have abnormal Pap test results, your doctor will suggest other tests to determine if you have dysplasia (abnormal cells) or if the cells have progressed into cancer. This is usually done using a biopsy and a colposcopy.

  • Colposcopy: The doctor uses an instrument called a colposcope to look at the cervix. The colposcope combines a bright light with a magnifying lens to make tissue easier to see. It is not inserted into the vagina. During this procedure, a biopsy can be performed to see if precancerous cells or cancer cells are present.

  • Cervical Biopsy: There are a few different types of biopsy that can be performed on the cervix. After the tissue is removed, it’s given to a pathologist who reviews the cells under a microscope to determine how different the cells look compared to normal cells.
    • Endocervical curettage: The doctor uses a curette (a small, spoon-shaped instrument) to scrape a small sample of tissue from the cervix. Some doctors may use a thin, soft brush instead of a curette.

    • Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP): The doctor uses an electric wire loop to slice off a thin, round piece of cervical tissue.

    • Conization (cone biopsy): The doctor removes a cone-shaped sample of tissue. A conization, or cone biopsy, lets the pathologist see if abnormal cells are in the tissue beneath the surface of the cervix. The doctor may do this test in the hospital under general anesthesia.

Removing tissue from the cervix may cause some bleeding or other discharge. The area usually heals quickly. Some women also feel some pain similar to menstrual cramps. Your doctor can suggest medicine that will help relieve your pain.

If the biopsy shows that cervical cancer is present, you will be referred to a gynecologic oncologist, a doctor specializing in cancers of women's reproductive systems. Learn about how oncologists determine cervical cancer's extent (staging).

Cervical Cancer Care in the South Chicago Suburbs

If abnormal results from testing have detected cervical cancer, the gynecologic oncologists at Affiliated Oncologists work with your diagnosis and specific needs before recommending a treatment plan. Our cancer centers are located in the South Chicago suburbs, including Downers Grove and Oak Lawn, IL. We also provide second opinions on diagnosis and treatment plans for cervical cancer.