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What Are Precancerous Cells?

Woman meeting with gynecologist

Health experts recommend that women between the ages of 21 and 65 have periodic Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer, which means there’s always the potential for abnormal results. However, if you’re like most patients who get their recommended cancer screenings, you probably expect a routine call from your physician’s office to let you know the results were normal. It can be alarming to hear that your test revealed the presence of precancerous cells. Does this mean those cells are on their way toward becoming cervical cancer?

Not necessarily. Despite what’s implied by the prefix, not all precancerous cells progress into cancer. Precancerous cells are abnormal cells that could undergo changes and turn into cancer cells as time goes by. In fact, most precancerous cells do not morph into invasive cancer cells.

What if you’ve been told you have cervical dysplasia?

Also known as cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN), cervical dysplasia is another term for the presence of precancerous cervical cells. It refers to abnormal cells that have not grown past the surface layer of the cervix.

How serious are precancerous cells in the cervix?

To answer this question, it’s helpful to briefly consider what cervical cancer is and how it affects a woman’s body.

The cervix is the part of the female reproductive system that’s located between the womb (uterus) and the vagina. There are two types of cells in the cervix:

  • glandular cells, which are found in the opening that leads to the uterus
  • squamous cells, which are located in the lower part of the cervix and can be seen by your physician during a speculum exam

The place where these two types of cells meet is known as the transformation zone. That’s where most cervical cancers begin, starting with cells that gradually develop abnormal changes. When these abnormal cells are viewed under a microscope, they are classified according to the seriousness of the risk they pose for developing into cervical cancer.

Precancerous glandular cells are typically described as simply having an abnormal appearance versus actually being pre-invasive cancer cells. For squamous cells, physicians grade the abnormalities, ranking them from CIN 1 to CIN 3, according to how much of the cervix’s epithelial tissue is affected. CIN 3 denotes the highest risk for developing into cancer. Physicians are more likely to prescribe cancer prevention treatment when CIN 2 and CIN 3 cells are discovered.

Cervical cancer usually develops slowly, typically over five years or more. The detection and treatment of precancerous cells through routine screenings can prevent cervical cancer from becoming a serious health risk.  

What causes precancerous cells in the cervix?

Various strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted disease, play a role in causing cervical cancer. However, most women infected with HPV do not get cervical cancer, and experts say women who smoke or have a compromised immune system are more likely to develop cervical cancer when exposed to HPV.

Women with precancerous cervical cells and early-stage cervical cancer may not have any noticeable symptoms. This is why it’s important to get the screenings recommended by your physician and the American Cancer Society. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends HPV vaccines for pre-teens, teens and young adults. These methods can help prevent cervical cancer from developing.

What to do if you’ve received abnormal screening test results

If you’ve had a Pap smear that indicated the presence of precancerous cells, you can feel confident turning to the gynecologists or the gynecologic oncologists at Moffitt Cancer Center for an accurate initial diagnosis or a second opinion. Moffitt is a recognized leader in detecting and treating all forms of gynecological cancer, and we offer patients access to the latest diagnostic techniques and a wide variety of advanced treatment options. Our Gynecologic Molecular Medicine Tumor Board also reviews each patient’s case to determine the best course of treatment.

What’s more, as Florida’s top cancer hospital, we understand the importance of getting our patients started on the right treatment as soon as possible. That’s why we connect new patients with a cancer expert within a day of their reaching out to us. Call 1-888-663-3488 today or submit a new patient registration form online to get started.