Pap screening

How is screening for cervical cancer done now?

The Pap test, or cervical cytology, is the current standard of care in cervical cancer screening. When you have your periodic gynecological checkup, your doctor takes a sample from your cervix and sends it to the laboratory. There, a cytopathologist examines the specimen under a microscope to see if any precancerous changes are present. If so, your doctor will refer you for a colposcopy.

A colposcopy is an examination of the cervix with a magnifying lens. The physician performing the colposcopy can look for small areas of precancerous changes on the cervix. He or she can take biopsies (small pieces of the cervix) that the pathologist will examine. Colposcopy is considered the most sensitive exam to detect precancerous and cancerous lesions of the cervix.

If Pap screening works, why look at other tests?

The Pap smear is a good test, but it is not perfect. Sometimes it misses precancerous changes, and sometimes it can mistake normal changes for precancerous changes. It is a test that is difficult to interpret and good cytopathologists are needed in order for the Pap test to prevent cervical cancer efficiently. Because of these imperfections, Pap tests need to be repeated frequently. This is inconvenient to women and expensive to the health care system, which could use the resources to provide additional services.

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