Recommended time between cervical screenings and the method of screening varies between patients, and is dependent upon age, risk factors, and past medical history. One important method of cervical screening is the Papanicolao test. Also known as the Pap test or the Pap smear, it examines cells that have been collected from the cervix, the neck-like area of the uterus. The cells then are placed on a slide and preserved before being sent to a lab for evaluation.
A Pap test typically detects abnormal cells that may be a precursor to cancer. Pap smears can detect a condition called cervical dysplasia, which is a precancerous abnormality of the cells. A Pap test also can detect cellular changes in the cervix before they become malignant.
Human papilloma virus (HPV) screening is a valuable component in cervical screening for cancer. HPV is a strain of genital warts that may be a predisposing factor in the development of cervical cancer. The HPV screening test can identify different strains of the virus. HPV screening may be performed on women after a Pap test detects abnormal cervical changes. If the HPV test shows high-risk strains of HPV, further cervical screening tests may be recommended.
Pelvic examinations can be a useful cervical screening test because during the exam, the reproductive organs – including the vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries – can be palpated to detect enlargement or irregularity. The bladder and rectum usually are palpated and evaluated for abnormality, as well. Cervical cancer successfully can be treated when detected early. Both the Pap test and pelvic exam typically can be performed in the doctor's office with minimal discomfort.
A loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) is a cervical screening procedure as well as a treatment. LEEP uses a wire loop that is attached to an electrosurgical generator; the electric current acts like a knife, cutting away abnormal cervical tissue. This causes heating and bursting of the abnormal dysplastic cells. It also excises and collects cervical tissue that can be sent to the pathology lab for further cellular evaluation. There may be discomfort after the procedure that may be relieved with over-the-counter pain relievers.
Cervical biopsies are a cervical screening procedure that removes a tissue sample of the cervix. The tissue sample usually is examined to determine if cancerous cells are present. A cervical biopsy may be done if a Pap test shows abnormal cellular changes. Different methods of cervical biopsy may remove different amounts of cervical tissue. A cone biopsy removes a wedge of cervical tissue in the shape of a cone, and an endocervical biopsy removes cervical tissue by scraping it with an instrument.