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Precancerous Cervical Changes: They’re Common and Treatable

An abnormal Pap test result can be scary. If the term precancerous is mentioned, many women assume the worst. But precancerous changes that show up during a Pap test can mean many things.

“There are different reasons why a Pap test can come back completely normal or suspicious for cancer, and there’s a whole myriad of things in between,” said Stephanie Angela King, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

What are pre-cancerous changes?

“Precancer means there isn’t cancer there yet, but if you don’t monitor or do something about it, it may develop into cancer,” King said.        

These changes do not mean you’re on the brink of a serious illness. In fact, many women are told that they have precancerous cervical cells.

“There are a million abnormal Pap smear each year,” King said. “Of those, 100,000 have serious precancer changes. And there are only 10,000 new cases of cervical cancer a year. That’s a lot of abnormal Pap smears for an actual small number of cancers.”

Risk factors for cervical changes

Some women are at a higher risk for precancerous cervical changes. American Cancer Society (ACS) pinpoints these risk factors:

  • Being infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually-transmitted infection
  • Smoking
  • Having a weakened immune system
  • Having a chlamydia infection
  • Being overweight
  • Having three or more full-term pregnancies
  • Having a family history of cervical cancer

These factors can increase your risk but they don’t determine your future.

“To decrease your risk, do whatever keeps your immune system working,” King said. “Eat a healthy diet, exercise, decrease your stress and get more sleep. These are things that will make your immune system more robust. Also, don’t smoke. Women who are smokers will have a higher rate of cervical cancer. Everybody focuses on how smoking is bad for your lungs or heart, but it can also decrease your body’s ability to mount an immune response.”

Dr. King also recommends that preteens get the HPV vaccine, which helps protect against the infection. If they miss the recommended dosages beginning around age 11, they can still get the vaccine until their mid-20s.

Treatment for cervical pre-cancer

Treatment for precancerous cells identified during a Pap test can vary. In serious cases, it can mean surgery to remove abnormal cells, cryosurgery to freeze the cells, or laser therapy to burn away the cells. But more often the recommended treatment is monitoring the situation with more frequent Pap tests every six to 12 months.

“Many times, what we will do is just follow these changes,” King said. “Many of these abnormalities are caused by the HPV virus. We can’t get rid of the virus for you—your immune system has to mount a response to it. Most of these cases can be followed up and monitored by your regular gynecologist.”

Get screened for cervical cancer

Take charge of your cervical health and get regular Pap tests. ACS recommends women begin this screening at age 21. From there:

  • Women 21 to 29 should have a Pap test every three years.
  • From age 30 to 65, women should have a Pap test and an HPV test every five years. This is the preferred screening method. But they can opt to have just a Pap test every three years.
  • Women older than 65 who’ve had regular screenings and no serious pre-cancers in the previous 20 years can stop screening.

Keep in mind that the Pap test and the HPV test are different screenings. And make sure you get your results for both tests. Learn more about cervical cancer screenings.

Or make an appointment with someone on our gynecologic oncology team.