If you have symptoms of cervical cancer, your doctor will try to find out what’s causing the problems. You may have the following tests:
- Lab tests: The doctor or nurse scrapes a sample of cells from the cervix. For a Pap test, the lab checks the sample for cervical cancer cells or abnormal cells that could become cancer later if not treated. For an HPV test, the same sample is tested for HPV infection. HPV can cause cell changes and cervical cancer.
- Cervical exam: The doctor uses a colposcope to look at the cervix. The colposcope combines a bright light with a magnifying lens to make tissue easier to see. This exam is usually done in the doctor’s office or clinic.
- Tissue sample: The removal of tissue to look for cancer cells is a biopsy. Most women have cervical tissue removed in the doctor’s office, and usually only local anesthesia is needed.
The doctor will remove tissue in one of the following ways:
- Punch biopsy: The doctor uses a sharp tool to pinch off small samples of cervical tissue.
- LEEP: The doctor uses an electric wire loop to slice off a thin, round piece of cervical tissue.
- Endocervical curettage: The doctor uses a curette (a small, spoon-shaped instrument) to scrape a small sample of tissue from the cervical canal. Some doctors may use a thin, soft brush instead of a curette.
- Cone biopsy: The doctor removes a cone-shaped sample of tissue. A cone biopsy lets the pathologist look at the tissue beneath the surface of the cervix to learn whether it has abnormal cells. The doctor may do this test in the hospital under general anesthesia.
A pathologist checks the tissue under a microscope for cancer cells. In most cases, a biopsy is the only sure way to tell whether cancer is present.
Removing tissue from the cervix may cause some bleeding or other discharge. The area usually heals quickly. Some women also feel some pain similar to menstrual cramps. Your doctor can suggest medicine that will help relieve any pain.
For more information about tests, cell changes, and treatment for these changes, you may want to read the NCI booklet Understanding Cervical Changes.
You may want to ask the doctor these questions before having a biopsy:
- Which biopsy method do you recommend?
- How will tissue be removed?
- Will I have to go to the hospital?
- How long will it take? Will I be awake? Will it hurt?
- Are there any risks? What are the chances of infection or bleeding after the test?
- For how many days afterward should I avoid using tampons, douching, or having sex?
- Can the test affect my ability to get pregnant and have children?
- How soon will I know the results? Who will explain them to me?
- If I do have cancer, who will talk to me about the next steps? When?