What Are Cytology Tests?

Cancer cells differ from the normal cells in your body. When doctors suspect or need to rule out cancer, they need to examine cells or tissues under a microscope. In this way, they can screen for or even diagnose various kinds of cancer.

Cytology is the study of the body’s cells. Cytology tests are tests that examine cells and cell groups for signs of cancer. Here’s what you need to know about cytology tests.

What Kind of Cytology Test Will I Have?

To perform a cytology test, the doctor needs to collect cells from your body. Different types of cytology tests collect the cells in different ways.

Many cytology tests use cells found in fluids throughout your body. These include:

  • Urine, to check for bladder cancer.
  • Phlegm, to check for lung cancer.

Additionally, doctors can perform cytology tests on fluid in or around other organs, including the:

  • Heart
  • Lungs
  • Abdomen
  • Spine
  • Brain

For other parts of the body, your doctor can gently scrape or brush some cells to remove them for a cytology test. These include the:

  • Cervix (Pap smear).
  • Stomach.
  • Esophagus.
  • Mouth.
  • Bronchioles and alveoli (small tubes and air spaces in the lungs).

If your doctor needs to examine cells from known or suspected tumors, you may receive fine needle aspiration cytology. In this procedure, your doctor will remove some fluid and cells from the tumor using a small, hollow needle.

After your doctor removes a small sampling of cells from your body, a pathologist evaluates their features and arrangement under a microscope. If the cells are abnormal, your doctor may order more tests to determine whether you have cancer or another disease.

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How Do Cytology Tests Differ From a Tissue Biopsy?

In cytology, the focus is on single cells and cell clusters and how they appear under the microscope. But when doctors perform a biopsy, they take a larger tissue sample. Tissue biopsies let the pathologist examine the tissue architecture as well as cell features.

Doctors use cytology and/or a tissue biopsy to make a definitive cancer diagnosis. They also need surgically resected tissue to grade and stage a tumor. Biopsies give doctors the information they need to advise patients about their long-term outlook and help define next steps in therapy.

What Are the Advantages of Cytology vs. Tissue Biopsy?

Since tissue biopsies give more information, you may wonder why your doctor would order cytology instead. Cytology offers some important advantages over biopsy. Cytology tests are usually:

  • Less painful
  • Less invasive
  • Less expensive
  • Complication-free

What Do My Cytology Results Mean?

The pathologist will send the results of your cytology test to your doctor. Your doctor will inform you of the results.

The report you receive from your doctor might include one of these terms:

  • Negative. Your sample contained no cancer cells.
  • Atypical. The doctor found some abnormal cells in your sample.
  • Suspicious. Your sample contained abnormal cells that are concerning for cancer.
  • Positive. Your sample contained cancer cells.
  • Unsatisfactory specimen. The pathologist was unable to get enough information from your sample to make a diagnosis. In this case, your doctor will ask you to repeat the test.

What Will Happen After My Cytology Test?

If your cytology test comes back negative and is considered representative of the disease process, you won’t need to do anything else. But if your results indicate cause for concern, your doctor will order more tests. The specific tests will vary by body part. Some common scenarios include:

If your Pap smear is abnormal, your doctor might take a biopsy from your cervix.

If your urine cytology is abnormal, your doctor might recommend cystoscopy, the use of a scope to examine your bladder and urinary tract.

If your fine needle breast aspiration includes abnormal cells, your doctor might recommend a breast biopsy.

Your doctor will work with you to plan further testing or treatment based on your specific circumstances.

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.