Waiting for medical test results can cause a lot of anxiety. The uncertainty and the “what ifs” can get you thinking of all kinds of unpleasant scenarios. But what if you’ve been told that your test results are abnormal? Learning what may happen next will help make dealing with the uncertainties ahead less stressful.
Here, how to cope with abnormal results for four common screenings:
A Pap test can find cervical cancer in women early, but it’s not always totally accurate. False positive (a specimen is called abnormal, but your results are actually normal) and false negative (you’re told your cells are normal, but they’re not) results can happen.
An abnormal result usually means that there’s a minor problem with the cervix, one that may not even need treatment. If results of your Pap test are unclear or show a small change in the cells of the cervix, you’ll probably go back for a second Pap test or additional exams such as colposcopy (a test in which a microscope-like tool is used to more closely examine the vagina and the cervix). If the colposcopy finds abnormal tissue, the physician may perform a biopsy or an endocervical curettage. A biopsy is the removal of cells or tissues from the abnormal area for examination under a microscope. Endocervical curettage is a type of biopsy that involves scraping cells from inside the endocervical canal with a small spoon-shaped tool called a curette. If these tests show abnormal cells that have a high chance of becoming cancer, further treatment is needed.
If a Pap test finds serious changes in the cells of the cervix, your healthcare provider may suggest more detailed tests based on his or her findings. Just remember that Pap tests are an important part of every woman’s healthcare routine, since they can dramatically lower your risk of developing cancer.
Mammograms are used for both screening and diagnosis. An annual screening mammogram is used to detect early changes in the breasts of women who have no signs of breast cancer. If your mammogram shows a change since your last screening, or if you or your healthcare provider notice a change, you’ll probably go in for a diagnostic mammogram, in which more X-rays are taken to get clearer, more detailed pictures of the breasts.
If your results are abnormal, it means either there’s been a change since your last mammogram or there’s an uncertainty in the mammogram. You’ll be asked to schedule another mammogram or an ultrasound so that the radiologist can get a closer look at what’s going on.
A colonoscopy examines the colon for precancerous and cancerous growths that may need to be removed or biopsied. If your results are abnormal, your healthcare provider will likely suggest follow-up tests to determine if you have cancer. If you had a virtual colonoscopy with abnormal results, the next step is a standard colonoscopy to confirm the finding.
Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) is a substance produced by a man’s prostate gland. Your healthcare provider will take a sample of your blood to measure your PSA level. Elevated PSA levels may indicate prostate cancer or a noncancerous condition such as prostatitis (prostate inflammation). Your PSA may also be high because of your age or race or if you have an infection. PSA level alone doesn’t give doctors enough information to distinguish benign prostate conditions from cancer.
Most men with elevated PSA levels have noncancerous prostate enlargement, a normal part of aging. If your doctor is concerned that you might have prostate cancer based on either your PSA level or a rectal exam, he or she will likely perform a biopsy to find out if cancer is present.