Having an annual pap smear is awkward but necessary for most women. A pap smear is a test used to detect abnormal cells on the cervix that can ultimately lead to cancer. Fortunately, cervical cancer is easily treated when it is discovered early. Most of the time, pap smears show no abnormal cells. But when a pap smear does indicate abnormal cells, it doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer. It simply indicates to your doctor that she should take a second look to determine what’s causing the abnormal cells.
A Second Pap Smear
If you don’t have a history of abnormal pap smears, your doctor will probably ask you to come in to have another pap smear. Inflammation from yeast infections, sexual activity or medications can sometimes cause results to appear abnormal. To rule out any one-time irregularities, retesting may be the only follow up you need.
When the doctor needs a closer look at the abnormal cervical cells, she might choose to perform a colposcopy. During the procedure, the doctor uses a solution to coat the cervix that will turn any abnormal cells white. She will then use an instrument similar to a microscope called a colposcope to examine the cells. She may also remove some of the cells for a biopsy examination.
LEEP stands for loop electrosurgical excision procedure. When the doctor determines that the abnormal cells have to be removed, she might perform a LEEP procedure. In a LEEP procedure, a thin wire loop is used to transmit a painless electrical current that removes the abnormal cells. The doctor can be sure that all the abnormal cells have been removed, and the tissue can then be sent to a lab for further examination.
Sometimes a doctor will choose to use cryotherapy to remove abnormal cervical cells. In cryotherapy, abnormal cells are frozen so they can naturally slough off. A probe is used to circulate nitrous oxide through the abnormal cells, freezing them to more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The cells are then thawed. The process is repeated twice and takes 15 to 20 minutes. It takes three to four weeks for new cells to replace the ones that were destroyed.
Laser treatment can be used to treat abnormal cells. Your doctor will use a concentrated beam of light to destroy the abnormal cells by vaporizing them. The procedure takes 5 to 10 minutes, and causes mild bleeding for one to two weeks following the surgery.
In very rare circumstances, a doctor may opt to perform a hysterectomy if cancerous cells are too advanced to remove with a LEEP or other method. Because hysterectomy is extremely invasive and requires a week-long hospital stay, it is only recommended for severe cell abnormalities, women who are past menopause or for patients who experience fibroids or heavy bleeding.