Abnormal Pap Results: What’s Next?

Focused on Health - January 2009

By Rachel Winters

Early detection of Chris’ cervical cancer gave her a fighting chance to return to the life she loves, which includes playing soccer.

Christina Froelich, age 30, is known by her friends and family as Chris. Born in Fort Worth and raised in Austin, Texas, to a large family of mostly women, Chris learned early about the importance of scheduling her annual Pap test. What she didn’t know, however, was that an abnormal Pap test result would one day lead doctors to detect cervical cancer early enough to save her life.

“Had I not gotten my annual Pap test, or followed-up with my doctor on the abnormal test results, there is no way I would have ever known I had cancer,” Chris says. “At the time they found my cervical cancer, my menstrual cycle was regular, and I had absolutely no symptoms. It was a complete surprise to everyone.”

A Pap test is a screening procedure used to determine if cells in and around the cervix are normal. An abnormal result means that a woman may have irregular cell changes, called dysplasia, but it is certainly not an immediate indication that she has cervical cancer. An abnormal test could indicate inflammation of the cervix, a yeast infection or other irregularities.

Don’t Panic If You Get an Abnormal Result

“The first thing a woman should do when she receives news of an abnormal Pap test is to take a deep breath and not panic,” says Helen E. Rhodes, M.D., associate professor in M. D. Anderson’s Department of Gynecologic Oncology and director of colposcopy and pre-invasive diseases. “It is important for women to realize that if your Pap test comes back abnormal, it just means there might be a problem and further testing is necessary to discover the cause.”
It was in the spring of 2005, during a routine visit to her gynecologist, when Chris was informed that her Pap test results were abnormal. Because she’d had regular Pap test results since she was 18-years-old, Chris carried on with life as usual, planning a return visit to her doctor for a follow-up Pap test six months later.

In December 2006, after having two additional abnormal Pap test results, Chris’ doctor decided to do a simple “cone” procedure, which allowed her doctor to biopsy a large section of her cervix.

“Treatment recommendations for women with abnormal Pap tests are based on biopsy results,” Rhodes says. “Biopsy results following an abnormal Pap test can take several weeks. This time lapse is nothing to be alarmed about because knowing the exact cell type is critical to choosing the right treatment and waiting just a few weeks is not likely to affect the eventual outcome of treatment.”

Early Detection Increases Chances of Successful Treatment

The results of Chris’ cone procedure led to a cervical cancer diagnosis. Determined to fight her cancer, and continue living the life she loved, Chris came to M. D. Anderson for treatment in January 2007.

“Since the cancer hadn’t progressed very far, I didn’t have to have radiation or chemotherapy,” says Chris. “Most importantly, because the cancer was found early, I had the option to have a new surgical procedure called a trachelectomy (removal of the cervix), instead of a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus). Unlike women who have hysterectomies, I will still be able to have children. Following-up on my abnormal Pap test results gave me an additional treatment option that preserved my ability to be a mother and maybe even saved my life.”

Almost two years after undergoing surgery, Chris recently received news that her Pap test results were normal for the first time in four years. While she will continue to undergo regular Pap tests, her cancer cells are completely gone.

Encourage Family Members to Get Screened

Chris currently lives in Houston, Texas, and spends her free time reading, traveling and playing on a women’s soccer team – a sport she has been playing since she was four years old. Chris also spends a lot of time with her family and her experience with cervical cancer has inspired her to encourage other women in her family to do everything they can to protect themselves.

“I’ve become a big proponent of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine for the younger women in my family because it’s amazing to be able to prevent 70% of cervical cancer cases with just three simple shots,” says Chris. Knowing that the disease is preventable, Chris has encouraged the women in her family to get regular screenings and to practice safe sex.

Completing the appropriate follow-up procedures when you get an abnormal Pap test result is another form of prevention. Following your doctor’s recommendations and remaining calm are important factors to your well-being.

For more information about abnormal Pap test results, contact askMDAnderson at 1-877-632-6789. To schedule a follow-up exam, contact M. D. Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center at 713-745-8040.