Cervical Cancer Screening & Diagnosis
Cervical cancer is almost always caused by an HPV infection. Visit our blog to learn about HPV and its connection to cervical cancer. 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 used to look at cervical cells. Pap tests can detect cervical cancer or abnormal cells that can lead to cervical cancer.
Finding and treating abnormal cells can prevent most cervical cancer. The Pap test can also 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. If you have abnormal Pap or HPV test results, your doctor will suggest other tests to make a diagnosis.
Before cervical cancer develops, the cells in the cervix go through changes known as dysplasia. These abnormal cells appear on the surface of the cervix and are not cancerous. However, if they are not treated, they may become cancerous, grow, and spread deeply into the cervix and surrounding areas. If your gynecologist finds signs of dysplasia, they typically have time to intervene and remove them before they develop into cervical cancer.
If cervical cancer is detected, your gynecologist should refer you to a gynecologic oncologist, a doctor who specializes in cancers of women's reproductive systems.
Tests Used to Diagnose Cervical Cancer
- Colposcopy: The doctor uses 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. A colposcopy is usually done in the doctor’s office or clinic.
- Biopsy: Most women have tissue removed in the doctor’s office with local anesthesia. A pathologist checks the tissue under a microscope for abnormal cells.
- Punch biopsy: The doctor uses a sharp tool to pinch off small samples of cervical tissue.
- LEEP: The doctor uses an electric wire loop to slice off a thin, round piece of cervical tissue.
- 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.
- Conization: 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.
What to Expect if You Were Diagnosed With a Cervical Cancer
If you have been diagnosed with a type of gynecologic cancer, such as cervical cancer, the first step is to schedule a consultation with a gynecologic oncologist.
Before your appointment, our team will review the medical records shared with them to understand your needs better. When meeting with one of the VOA gynecologic oncologists, you will learn more about your specific diagnosis, the stage of cervical cancer, if surgery is needed, and the types of treatment to expect. Dr. Robert Squatrito with Virginia Oncology Associates explains what to expect if you are referred to a gynecologic oncologist.
In general, most appointments last a little more than an hour. Before you leave, you will be provided with a list of resources, as well as a list of phone numbers, should you need to contact specific members of your VOA cancer care team. If you are in the Hampton Roads area, we offer gynecologic oncology appointments in Norfolk, Chesapeake, and Suffolk, Virginia. Ultimately, the goal of this first appointment with a gynecologic oncologist is to provide you with an individualized treatment plan.