April 15, 2024

Here’s What You Need To Know If Your Smear Shows Abnormal Cell Changes

If you’ve learned you have abnormal cervical cells, the first thing to know is that they’re common, they often improve by themselves and they’re normally nothing to worry about. But sometimes, these cell changes need to be addressed to prevent them from becoming anything more serious.

Left untreated, there’s a risk they can develop into cervical cancer. The tricky part is that abnormal cervical cells don’t display symptoms. You won’t know you have them unless you get a cervical screening – which is why your smear test is essential.

I was almost five years late to my first smear test, so when my results flagged abnormal cervical cells, I felt responsible. Or rather I felt enormously irresponsible. I write about the importance of smear tests as part of my job in beauty and health. I know how important they are. I’ve said so here.

The worst part is that I have no explanation for the delay other than life getting in the way. I moved house, focused on work deadlines, then Covid happened. After that, I moved again (away from my doctors). I’d been meaning to go, I meant to book in, but I didn’t get round to it. By the time I finally signed up to a new doctor I felt huge anxiety about going to my cervical screening. What excuse did I have for failing to prioritise my health when it’s one of the most precious things I have? I’d taken my good health for granted, gambling that all was well because I was young, felt fine and had really meant to book it in asap.

After I attended my smear test, I put it out of my mind, until I got a letter through the door with my results.

When you get your results

My results showed that I had changes to some of the cells in my cervix called “low-grade dyskaryosis». The letter informed me that “in almost all cases these abnormal cells are not found to be cancer,” but they wanted me to come in for further examination.

Because I was so late in attending my smear I felt a huge amount of guilt and worry that, were something to be detected, I’d delayed my own treatment. The only way around this is to make sure you take your smear tests seriously, and attend them promptly so any abnormalities can be dealt with swiftly, so this felt like a wake-up call. Those cells could have been years old, but equally they may have only developed. The best way to investigate whether they were cause for concern was with a colposcopy. My letter invited me to attend the procedure and included a separate letter with details of my appointment.

I was sent for a colposcopy

Not to be confused with a colonoscopy (which sees a camera inserted into your rectum), a colposcopy allows for your gynaecologist to see what’s happening inside your cervix. You’ll have to strip down from the waist and sit back in a chair, with your feet lifted into stirrups on either side. A speculum is inserted into your vagina to open it (the same as in a smear), then a microscope camera is placed in front of, but not inside of, your vagina to give a clear image of your cervix. An acetic acid or iodine solution is applied over the cervix which helps to identify abnormal cells by turning white. They help to show the following:

A normal result

According to the NHS, about 4 in 10 people who have a colposcopy will have a normal result, which means that your cervix looks healthy and you have a low-risk of developing cervical cancer before your next screening. You can have a normal colposcopy result even if you had an abnormal result during your cervical screening.

Abnormal cells confirmed

About 6 in 10 people will have abnormal cells found or CIN (cervical intraepithelial neoplasia). CIN is not cancer, but it can sometimes go on to develop into cancer. The colposcopy and biopsy results will show whether these cells need to be removed or can be left alone. This will depend on whether your CIN is “low grade” or “high grade”.

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