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By the way, doctor: My Pap tests show insufficient cells. What does that mean?

June 21, 2019

Q. For two years in a row, the lab that handles my Pap smears has reported "insufficient cell count." My doctor says it's nothing to worry about, but my health insurance company considers these "abnormal" Paps and has put me in a higher-risk category because of it. Should I be concerned?

A. When lab pathologists evaluate Pap tests for abnormal cells, the goals are to identify cancer that should be removed and precancerous conditions that should be followed closely to watch for any changes. Sometimes the results are unclear because the lab sample doesn't contain enough cells to evaluate ("insufficient cell count") — or because the cells are obscured by inflammation, mucus, or blood from a heavy menstrual period. In these cases, the Pap test is not necessarily abnormal; the specimen is simply inadequate to make any determination.

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