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Terms You May Hear From Your Doctor or Nurse

Adenocarcinoma Human papillomavirus (HPV)
Atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance (ASC-US) Hysterectomy
Biopsy Immune system
Cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) LEEP
Cervix Lesion
Colposcopy Low-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion (LSIL)
Cryosurgery Oncologist
Cytology Pap smear/test (also called cytology)
Dysplasia Pathologist
False negative result Pre-cancerous
False positive result Reflex HPV testing
FDA Risk factor
Gynecology Vagina
High-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion (HSIL) Vulva


A tumor that develops in glandular tissue (found in any organ that makes a substance that is later secreted, such as hormones or breast milk). In the case of cervical cancer, an adenocarcinoma can develop in the glandular lining of the endocervical canal, the narrow passageway that connects the cervix to the womb (uterus). Cancer in this canal is often difficult to diagnose using a Pap smear alone, since the cervical cells are not as easily collected for examination.

Atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance (ASC-US)

Medical term for an inconclusive Pap test. In other words, the squamous cells (thin, flat cells resembling fish scales that are found in various parts of the body, including the cervix) do not look entirely normal, but also not entirely abnormal. Approximately 3-10% of Pap results are considered “ASC-US.” About 60 percent of the time, it’s a false alarm: Follow-up examination shows that high-risk HPV is not present and abnormal cells have not formed. The remaining 40 percent of women do indeed have HPV; however, only about half of them are typically found to have detectable changes in their cervical cells as a result (mostly mild to moderate).


Removal of a sample of tissue that is then examined under a microscope to confirm whether abnormal cells, including cancer, are present and need to be treated.

Cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN)

General term used to describe the growth of abnormal cells on the surface of the cervix. Numbers from 1 to 3 (as in CIN 1 or CIN 3) are used to describe the degree of abnormal changes that have developed. CIN 1 is equivalent to mild dysplasia (abnormal cells), and often disappears on its own without treatment. CIN 2 or 3 is equivalent to moderate to severe dysplasia (pre-cancerous conditions that require treatment).


The lower, cylindrical end of the uterus (womb) that connects to the vagina. Click here for an illustration.


A procedure in which the vagina and the surface of the cervix is examined using a lighted microscope (colposcope) for signs of pre-cancerous cells or cancer. A biopsy often is taken at the same time.


Treatment to destroy abnormal tissue on the cervix using an instrument that freezes the targeted cells.


The medical term for a Pap test (smear).


Abnormal cells on the cervix, which in moderate to severe cases may progress to cancer if not treated.

False negative result

A test result that appears normal, but in reality is not. In the case of a Pap test, this occurs when cervical cells examined in the lab are mistakenly interpreted as healthy, thus allowing abnormalities to progress unchecked.

False positive result

A test result that appears abnormal, but in reality is not. In the case of a Pap test, this occurs when cervical cells examined in the lab are mistakenly interpreted as abnormal, thus making additional tests necessary and causing anxiety.


The Food and Drug Administration, an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services that regulates the testing of drugs, devices and tests, and approves new medical products for sale based on evidence of safety and efficacy.


The field of medicine that focuses on the care of the female reproductive system.

High-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion (HSIL)

Moderate to severe dysplasia (pre-cancerous cervical cells), also called CIN 2 or CIN 3, which is diagnosed using a colposcopy and biopsy. Severe abnormalities (CIN 3) may develop into cancer if the cells are not removed.

Human papillomavirus (HPV)

The name for a group of viruses, of which there are more than 100 types. About 30 types of HPV target the genital area (spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact, primarily sexual intercourse), and these affect an estimated 50 percent of adults (80 percent of women) at one time or another by the time they are 50. Of these, most are considered "low-risk," which means they cannot cause cancer. However, about a dozen or so are considered "high risk," which means they can cause cancer if they are not suppressed or eliminated by the body’s immune system. In women, the most common cancer caused by HPV is cervical cancer. In men, cancers caused by HPV are rare, and typically affect the penis or anus.


An operation in which the uterus is removed, often including the cervix.

Immune system

The body's defense against invading microbes and cancers, which includes antibodies and other "soldier" cells.


The acronym for loop electrosurgical excision procedure. A fine wire loop, through which electrical energy flows, is used to remove abnormal tissue. It can be done as an outpatient, with local anesthesia


Any abnormal tissue, usually caused by disease or trauma.

Low-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion (LSIL)

Mildly abnormal cells, also called CIN 1, diagnosed using a colposcopy and sometimes a biopsy. In most cases, these types of abnormal cervical cells go away on their own without treatment.


A doctor who specializes in treating cancer.

Pap smear/test (also called cytology)

A test in which a sample of cervical cells collected during a gynecologic exam is looked at under a microscope for signs of abnormalities. In a conventional Pap test, a "smear" of cervical cells is placed directly on a slide for examination. In the newer, "liquid-based" Pap (brand names ThinPrep® or SurePath®), the cervical cells are suspended in a solution before being placed on the slide, which some doctors think make them easier to accurately examine. The Pap test is named after the pathologist who first developed the test in 1943, Dr. George Papanicolaou.


A doctor who diagnoses disease by studying cells and tissue under a microscope.


Cells or tissue that is not currently cancerous, but may become so over time without treatment.

Reflex HPV testing

An HPV test that is performed on a sample of cervical cells following an inconclusive Pap test (also called an ASC-US Pap).

Risk factor

Something that increases the chance of developing a disease. For example, in the case of cervical cancer, a person with a persistent HPV infection is at greater risk of developing cervical cancer if she smokes.


The muscular "canal" that extends from the uterus to the outside of the body. Its opening is located between the urethra (where urine exits the body) and the anus. Also called the birth canal.


The female genital area extending from the pubic mound to the anus. The vulva includes the pubic mound, labia (lips), clitoris and vaginal opening.