Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the cervix; it is most commonly caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). In general, cervical cancer diagnosis requires a woman to receive three different tests: a Pap test, a colposcopy, and a biopsy. In some cases, she might undergo an HPV DNA test as well. A Pap test is an exam that does not actually diagnose cervical cancer; instead, it screens for the medical condition. If a Pap test reveals that the woman has abnormal cells, then a doctor will examine the cervix during a colposcopy and perform a biopsy, a procedure in which the doctor removes a piece of tissue from the cervix for analysis.
The Pap test, also called a Pap smear, is an important procedure that a woman receives, as it can identify if the cervix is cancerous or precancerous. During a Pap test, the doctor will use an instrument called a speculum to widen the vaginal canal, and then she will brush cells from the cervix for analysis. An examination of the cells under a microscope will determine if there are any abnormalities.
If the results of a Pap test are cell abnormalities, the woman will need to get a colposcopy. This second test in cervical cancer diagnosis is a procedure in which the doctor examines the woman’s cervix under a microscope. The doctor uses an instrument called a colposcope to look for and identify abnormal areas that might point towards cancer. When the doctor identifies these abnormal areas, she will then take a sample of tissue for further analysis in a procedure called a biopsy.
A biopsy is the third test in cervical cancer diagnosis. The usual type of biopsy that accompanies a colposcopy is a punch biopsy. During a punch biopsy, the doctor uses a circular knife to remove a circular-shaped part of tissue from the cervix. Depending on the location and size of the abnormal area, the doctor might use another type of biopsy, a cone biopsy, to collect a tissue sample. This type of biopsy involves taking a deep, cone-shaped sample with the use of a scalpel or laser.
While a Pap test, a colposcopy and a biopsy are three tests that contribute to a cervical cancer diagnosis, there are other tests that a woman might receive, depending on her situation. For example, a woman over 30 years of age might also undergo an HPV DNA test. This is a procedure in which the doctor takes cells from the cervix to determine if they contain any high-risk strains of the virus before any visual changes occur to the cells. Like the Pap test, an HPV DNA test is a screening procedure, but the HPV DNA test should not become a replacement for a regular Pap test.