Cancer Screening Programmes
What your abnormal result means
You have had an abnormal result from your
cervical screening test.
Cervical screening is designed to pick up minor changes before any problems
develop, and almost certainly that is what the test has done for you.
An abnormal result is not unusual: about 1 in 20 women have test results that
show some abnormality.
It is important to remember that it is extremely rare for an abnormality found at
screening to be cancer. Nearly all abnormal results show no more than small
changes in cells. These act as an early warning sign that, over time, cervical
cancer may develop.
What does my result mean?
An abnormal result usually means that small changes have been found in the
cells on the cervix (the neck of the womb). The name given to these changes is
In many cases these changes return to normal by themselves. But sometimes
the changes become worse and could lead to cancer in the future. In such
cases it is necessary to have a further examination which will show if treatment
is needed. Treatment is simple and virtually 100 per cent effective.
Fortunately, it usually takes many years for cancer of the cervix to develop. So it
is very rare, especially in women who have regular cervical screening, for an
abnormal result to show that cancer has already developed.
What causes an abnormal result?
Changes in the cells of the cervix are often associated with the Human
Papilloma Virus (HPV), which is transmitted by sexual intercourse. There are
over 100 types of this virus, and certain types are linked with nearly all cases of
cervical cancer. Most women are infected with HPV at some point in their lives,
but most infections disappear without the need for treatment. Even women with
‘high risk’ HPVs rarely go on to develop cervical cancer.
HPV often shows no symptoms. It is therefore possible that you may have had
the virus for many years without knowing about it, or a partner may have been
infected many years ago and, again, not know.
What happens now?
For many women their abnormal result will show borderline changes or mild
dyskaryosis. These are small changes which often return to normal by
The areas of changed cells are known as cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, or
CIN. Mild dyskaryosis is associated with the grade CIN 1.These changes are
not cancer, and in most cases do not lead to cancer in the future.
It is safe to give the small changes a chance to return to normal by themselves
without having immediate treatment. If you have a test result showing borderline
changes or mild dyskaryosis your doctor will often ask you to return for a repeat
screening test in around six months’ time, but you may be referred for
colposcopy (see below).
If the repeat test is normal, you will be asked to have two more tests at six-
monthly intervals to be sure that the cells are still healthy. If they are healthy,
you will then go back to receiving routine screening invitations as before.
If your repeat test still shows borderline changes or mild dyskaryosis, you may
be referred to a clinic for a further examination – called colposcopy.
For some women their result will show moderate or severe dyskaryosis.
These areas of changed cells are associated with the grades CIN 2 and CIN 3.
Even with CIN 2 or CIN 3 grade changes, it is unlikely that you have cancer.
However, these changes are less likely to return to normal by themselves and
usually need treatment. To decide whether you need treatment, a colposcopy
examination will be carried out to investigate the cervix in detail. It is important
that these changes are checked now, in case they become more serious in the
What is colposcopy?
This is a simple examination at a colposcopy clinic that allows the doctor to
decide if you need treatment.
An instrument called a colposcope is used. This is a type of microscope or
magnifying glass which lets the doctor look more closely at the changes on your
cervix. It does not touch you or go inside you. The examination is very similar to
the screening test, so women may find it a bit uncomfortable.
If you need colposcopy, make sure you receive the leaflet Cervical Screening:
The colposcopy examination.
What about treatment?
If you need treatment following colposcopy you will usually by treated as an
outpatient and there will be no need for you to stay in hospital.
Treatment is nearly always 100 per cent successful. The area of changed cells
will be removed from the cervix.
The method for this will vary from clinic to clinic, but it is a simple procedure and
will be carried out under local anaesthetic.
What follow-up will I need?
If you do need treatment, you will be asked to have two follow up screening
tests at around six-monthly intervals afterwards, to check that all the abnormal
cells have been removed. If these check ups are normal, you will be advised to
have tests every year for up to nine years. Assuming no further problems occur
in that time, you will then go back to your usual screening interval of once every
three to five years (depending on your age).
What about sex?
Sex does not make any abnormality worse, and you cannot pass on abnormal
cells to your partner. Enjoy sex as usual, but you should use an effective
It is important not to get pregnant until your abnormality is dealt with, as the
hormones produced during pregnancy make treatment more difficult.
Colposcopy will have no effect on your future fertility. The colposcopist will
discuss with you the possible effect that treatment may have if you become
pregnant in the future. Pregnant women needing treatment may be advised to
wait until after the birth of their baby.
If you have any questions regarding your condition or if you feel worried at all,
do not hesitate to phone or make an appointment with your GP, who will be
happy to talk to you.
- About 1 in 20 women have an abnormal cervical screening result, so it is
not particularly unusual
- Nearly all abnormal tests show no more than small changes in the cells
on the cervix. These changes would probably never develop into cancer,
but it is sensible to monitor them
- Treatment, if needed, is simple and virtually 100 per cent effective. You
will usually be treated as an out patient. The colposcopist will discuss
any effects treatment may have on pregnancy
- You can have sex again within a few weeks of treatment
- Having an abnormal screening result does not affect your ability to
Cancer Screening Programmes
Published by the Department of Health in association with NHS Cancer
Screening Programmes and Cancer Research UK
© Crown copyright 2006
Produced by COI for the Department of Health
Last updated 2006
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