Many women are familiar with getting routine pap smears, but may or may not know exactly what is being tested in this exam or what the results really mean. This is a test of the cervix, which is the part of the uterus that extends down into the vagina with an opening where menstrual blood flows out. The pap smear is a sample of cells from the cervix that screens for changes related to cervical dysplasia. Dysplasia is a general term to describe abnormal cellular growth that is not cancerous, but could develop into cancer.
Cervical dysplasia develops very slowly (over a period of years), so usually pap smears are recommended, for women age 21-65, every 1-3 years in order to detect abnormal cells before they might progress to a cancerous state. (Screening recommendations can vary so please ask your doctor when a pap test is needed in your particular case.)
Risk Factors for Cervical Dysplasia
A pap smear should also include a co-test for the presence of HPV (human papilloma virus), which is the most common cause of cervical dysplasia. Ideally your doctor will be testing for the type of HPV as well, since low-risk types are more likely to cause genital warts, while high-risk HPV is more likely to cause dysplasia.
In addition to HPV, other risk factors for cervical dysplasia include smoking, long-term use of oral contraceptives, having an illness that suppresses the immune system, being on immunosuppressant drugs, having multiple sexual partners, a diet low in fruits and vegetables, having more than 3 full-term pregnancies or having infrequent cervical cancer screening.
What Happens If You Get Abnormal Pap Smear Results?
If you have an abnormal pap and/or a positive high-risk HPV test, depending on your age and history, you’ll most often be referred for a follow-up colposcopy. A colposcopy is a short exam where the gynecologist examines your cervix under magnification after applying an acetic acid (vinegar) solution to see if there are any visible areas of dysplasia. If there are, they will do one or more small biopsies from the cervix that will be sent to the lab to determine the grade of dysplasia.
There are 3 grades of cervical dysplasia depending on how far the abnormal cells have grown into the epithelial (or surface) layer of the cervix – CIN 1, 2, and 3. CIN is Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia, another term for cervical dysplasia, and refers to the changes in the cells that are not yet cancerous.
Conventional Approach Limitations
Depending on the grade of CIN, your doctor may recommend a watch-and-wait approach or they may suggest a LEEP (Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure) or conization to remove the abnormal cells. Both LEEP and conization come with risks of scarring in the cervix, decreased sensitivity of the cervix, increased pelvic pain, trouble getting pregnant, potential for miscarriage or preterm birth or having a low birth weight baby. In conventional medical practice, doctors often end up recommending these procedures because they have such limited options to offer and they want to make sure to prevent the dysplasia from advancing to cervical cancer.
Holistic Naturopathic Approach
In naturopathic medicine, we have the same goal but we have other options for you! They are highly effective, generally well-tolerated, and have the side benefit of improving your whole body’s health while also treating the dysplasia.
Naturopathic treatment for cervical dysplasia and HPV infection addresses modifiable risk factors, supports the body’s immune and tissue-healing functions and treats the abnormal cells and HPV with herbal vaginal suppositories or in-office escharotic treatments. The suppositories can be administered at home for milder cases and for more advanced dysplasia we usually recommend a series of 8-12 cervical escharotic (ES-CAR-AH-TIK) treatments which are in-office procedures using natural substances to treat the cervix directly, a bit like giving your cervix a facial 🙂
We’re Here to Help!
At The Women’s Vitality Center, our approach to treating cervical dysplasia addresses whole-person health to support your body to clear abnormal cells and HPV. Testing and treating issues with nutrient deficiencies, thyroid function, inflammation, blood sugar and stress hormone balance and estrogen metabolism is part of what differentiates our approach from a conventional strategy that focuses solely on removing the abnormal cells. Even if you choose to do a LEEP procedure, you can still benefit from naturopathic care to support healing and reduce risk of recurrence of dysplasia and HPV.
If you have any questions about our approach or about healing from cervical dysplasia and HPV, please schedule a Vitality Discovery Call so we can get to know you and help you figure out your best next steps.