What Do My Cervical Cancer Screening Test Results Mean?
The HPV test and the Pap test are screening tests that can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early.
- The HPV test looks for the virus (human papillomavirus) that can cause cell changes on the cervix.
- The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers, cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.
The Pap test is recommended for all women between the ages of 21 and 65 years old. If you are between 30 and 65 years old, you may choose to get a Pap test only, an HPV test only, or both tests together.
Pap Test Result
A Pap test result can be normal, unclear, abnormal, or unsatisfactory.
A normal (or “negative”) result means that no cell changes were found on your cervix. This is good news. But you still need to get Pap tests in the future. New cell changes can still form on your cervix.
Your doctor may tell you that you can wait three years for your next screening test if you received a Pap test only. If you also received an HPV test, and the result is negative, your doctor may tell you that you can wait five years for your next screening test.
It is common for test results to come back unclear. Your doctor may use other words to describe this result, like equivocal, inconclusive, or ASC-US. These all mean the same thing—that your cervical cells look like they could be abnormal. It is not clear if it’s related to HPV. It could be related to life changes like pregnancy, menopause, or an infection. The HPV test can help find out if your cell changes are related to HPV. Ask your doctor what to do next.
An abnormal result means that cell changes were found on your cervix. This usually does not mean that you have cervical cancer. Abnormal changes on your cervix are likely caused by HPV. The changes may be minor (low-grade) or serious (high-grade). Most of the time, minor changes go back to normal on their own. But more serious changes can turn into cancer if they are not removed. The more serious changes are often called “precancer” because they are not yet cancer, but they can turn into cancer over time. In rare cases, an abnormal Pap test can show that you may have cancer. You will need other tests to be sure. The earlier you find cervical cancer, the easier it is to treat.
If there are not enough cells in the sample or the cells are clumped together, this is considered unsatisfactory. Your doctor may ask you to come back for another Pap test in a few months.
HPV Test Result
An HPV test result can be positive or negative.
A negative HPV test means you do not have an HPV type that is linked to cervical cancer. Your doctor may tell you that you can wait five years for your next screening test.
A positive HPV test means you do have an HPV type that may be linked to cervical cancer. This does not mean you have cervical cancer now. But it could be a warning. The specific HPV type may be identified to determine the next step.
- Next Steps after an Abnormal Cervical Cancer Screening Test: Understanding HPV and Pap Test Results (National Cancer Institute)