Health And Wellness

What Cervical Dysplasia Taught Me About The Importance Of Routine Pap Smears

Photo: Branislav Nenin / Shutterstock
woman in a appointment with doctor

I was 23 when I had my first pap smear, and I didn’t even know what the procedure tested for.

While out one Saturday evening with three of my girlfriends, I sat in silence as they discussed their most recent pap smear checkups, too embarrassed to ask for clarification on why they were important. After mulling over the conversation for a few days, I decided to book an appointment.

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The health facility I contacted had a last-minute cancellation, so I was able to see a doctor within a few days. I arrived at my appointment and was escorted to an exam room where I waited for 20 minutes or so until a nurse entered the room with a welcoming smile.

After asking some standard preliminary health questions, she explained that pap smears are used to detect abnormal cervical cell changes and cervical cancer.

Regardless of her explanation, I sat there wondering why I wasn't taught such an important topic in school. The exam was quick and painless, and after leaving the facility I went about my business.

Two weeks later after returning home from a fun weekend getaway in the country, I noticed a voicemail from my doctor asking me to contact her, and a letter my mother had left for me in the mail holder. Although I had a brief moment of anxiousness, I assumed it was protocol to contact patients with their results and the chances of there being an issue were slim.

As I read the letter my heart sank. The words "Your Pap Results Are Abnormal" jumped out at me from the paper.

One of the scariest parts of having unfavorable test results is fear of the unknown. A lack of knowledge on the subject matter can leave us in the dark, unsure of what to expect.

I was terrified and immediately burst into tears. As I read on, the letter advised contacting the health facility promptly to undergo a procedure known as a colposcopy.

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I immediately phoned my doctor to book an appointment, but the earliest they had available was two weeks away, which felt like the longest wait of my life. In the meantime, I sat googling what the worst-case scenario could be, creating a thousand what-ifs in my mind.

The day of my appointment finally arrived and though tired from lack of sleep the night prior, I was eager to know what my results meant and what the next step would be. Thankfully, all the medical staff I met with were incredibly supportive, reassuring me that I was in good hands.

I had an in-depth conversation with my doctor who explained that abnormal pap smears are due to precancerous cervical cells known as dysplasia, most often caused by HPV, a common STI. There are various strains of HPV, but most of the high-risk types cause dysplasia.

The colposcopy procedure they were going to perform examines the cervix and allows healthcare providers to get a closer look at the location of abnormal cells and take a biopsy if needed for further assessment. 

All of this information hit me like a ton of bricks, but her bedside manner and reassurance calmed my nerves.

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After changing into a gown, I was taken to an exam room for my colposcopy.

During the procedure, the doctor put a vinegar solution onto my cervix to highlight the abnormal cells and she then took a biopsy.

A few weeks later my results came back confirming I had mild precancerous cervical cell changes, and the course of action was a watch-and-wait approach since abnormal cells can disappear on their own with time. It was however still important to attend regular pap smear checkups every four to six months.

After two years of continuous abnormal pap smears, I was sent for a second colposcopy, by which time my healthcare provider informed me that my dysplasia had become severe.

Due to this, I would require what is known as a LEEP, a procedure that is performed to completely remove the abnormal cells.

This was my first outpatient procedure which was intimidating, but the health professionals surrounding me kept me positive. My LEEP took about 15 minutes, and all the abnormal cells were successfully removed. I had a bit of cramping after, but a couple of days later I was back to normal and working again.

It's been eight years since my abnormal cervical cells were removed, and thankfully I have had normal paps ever since.

What I experienced was scary, but it taught me the importance of regular pap smears to screen for abnormal cervical cell changes and cervical cancer. Since then, I always honor my checkups, and I am grateful to all the medical professionals who have guided me along the way.

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Alex Alexander is a pseudonym. The author of this article is known to YourTango but is choosing to remain anonymous.