Understanding Your Cervical Cancer Screening Results
Congratulations! You made a commitment to your health by being screened for cervical cancer. Whether you had only a Pap test or a Pap test and HPV test (a screening test for the human papillomavirus, a virus that's known to cause cervical cancer), these simple screenings are lifesavers.
Learn more about cervical cancer screening tests.
Although the Pap test and HPV test aren’t foolproof, they are highly reliable. Most cervical cancers can be detected early if you have routine Pap tests.
Once you have your results in hand, the next step is to understand what they mean. Pap test results are reported in one of three categories:
- Normal: No pre-cancerous or cancerous cells were detected during your screening. Plan to have your next Pap test in three years.
- Unclear: This result is common. It means that your cervical cells look like they could be abnormal, but the test won’t show why. "Inconclusive" and "ASC-US" are other terms your healthcare provider may use. The HPV test can show if HPV is causing cell changes identified in an "unclear" result. Your doctor will take a closer look at your cervix and may recommend more tests. It's also possible that your doctor will suggest a "watch and wait" approach to see if the changes go away before recommending more tests. More tests aren't always the best approach because they sometimes can lead to unnecessary procedures. Ask your doctor for guidance.
- Abnormal: This result means that cell changes - most likely caused by HPV - were identified on your cervix. The changes are described as "minor" (low-grade changes) or "serious" (high-grade changes). It's important to remember that most minor changes return to normal without any treatment. High-grade changes are usually called pre-cancer because without treatment, they may eventually develop into cancer. Your healthcare provider will look more closely at your cervix and recommend next steps if your results are abnormal.
About 3 million women each year have unclear or abnormal Pap tests, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Around 10,000 of these will have cervical cancer.
HPV test results are reported as either negative (no HPV type was identified) or positive (an HPV type linked to cervical cancer was identified). HPV tests should be interpreted with your Pap test result.
"The next step for an abnormal Pap test depends on how abnormal the result is and what your individual risk factors are for cervical cancer," explains Dr. David Moore, a gynecologic oncology specialist at Franciscan Physician Network Gynecologic Oncology Specialists in Indianapolis.
Risk factors for cervical cancer are:
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Having a family history or personal history of cervical cancer or pre-cancer
"We can make a difference for many, many people when they are proactive about their health and follow cancer screening recommendations," says Dr. Moore.
Learn more about advanced gynecologic oncology services at Franciscan Health.
- Take Our Cervical Cancer Quiz
- Why HPV Vaccination Matters for Women
- Cervical Cancer Can Be Prevented: FDA