If you're an adult woman in the Western world, chances are you go for a smear test every few years. Mostly these tests come back just fine, but occasionally you'll receive an abnormal result. So what happens next in those circumstances? The good news is that it's not usually as big a deal as you might imagine--so don't panic, and simply follow your doctor's advice through a few simple steps.
#1: You'll get your test results back, probably in a letter from your doctor explaining what they've found and how concerned they are. That letter will usually contain a follow-up appointment, or a number for you to ring to book one. It's important that you do this as soon as possible, particularly if you seem to have a high number of abnormal cells. Putting this off can cause much more serious problems further down the line.
#2: At your follow-up appointment, you'll probably need to give a cervical biopsy. This is a sample of tissue taken from your cervix that will help the doctors figure out more clearly how serious your abnormalities are. The process is very similar to that of a smear test, though you will experience a little more discomfort and may bleed for a few days afterwards.
#3: Quite often, the biopsy will come back showing that while you should be monitored a little more closely than most people (meaning you'll need to go in for extra smear tests, probably annually) there is no need for further action at this time. If the abnormalities are a little further advanced, however, you'll be referred for something known as a Loop Electro-Excision Procedure - usually shortened to 'LEEP'. This is a simple and non-invasive surgical procedure whereby the problematic cells are removed using a heated wire loop.
#4: Most people will have the procedure under a local anesthetic, though they will in some cases use a general--and you can usually request general anaesthetic rather than local if you feel that you would prefer it. You should only need a day or two to recover after the surgery, though you will be asked to abstain from penetrative sexual intercourse (as well as from using tampons and swimming) for six weeks afterward.
Smear tests can be a little uncomfortable, but they're a vital part of helping to stem the tide of cervical cancer--an illness which is, in most cases, entirely preventable. So don't put off booking your test--make the appointment as soon as you can after receiving your reminder letter.