The Difference Between Precancer and Cancer Cells in Women’s Cancers

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Dr. Kowalski of Nevada Surgery and Cancer Care in Las Vegas has long had a passion for educating women on their bodies, women’s cancer treatment, and hysterectomy awareness. In the video above she explains a common question: What is the difference between precancer and cancer in women’s cancers? With the full transcription below, learn the vital difference between healthy and cancerous cells, and what to do should your pap smear come back with a report of abnormal cells.

Today, we’re going to talk about a question I hear a lot in my practice. A lot of women come to me with a pathology report from some biopsy that they’ve had and they’re not sure about the difference between precancer and cancer in women’s cancers.

What’s the difference?

Precancers are abnormalities of the cells themselves but they don’t have the ability to invade and spread to other areas of the body. So cancers are cells that have gone horribly bad, but in addition to being abnormal, they can actually invade into the tissues around them and spread throughout the body. So that’s how women’s cancers can ultimately make people sick and even potentially kill people is by spreading to other areas. Precancers, on the other hand, can grow just where they are, but they can’t invade and spread to other parts of the body.

For example, a lot of women come in with a pap smear that’s abnormal and they might get a biopsy and the biopsy will say there’s precancer of the cervix. It can obviously make you nervous to see that diagnosis, but that’s a lot different than having an actual cancer of the cervix. A women’s cancer is much more serious and potentially requires a lot more treatment. Precancers are definitely much easier to treat.

[Dr. Kowalski shows a picture of how the cervix looks under a microscope]

The top layer of [cervix] cells are called the lining, and the cells are very organized in relationship to each other. Underneath that is a layer of supportive tissue and below that is a layer of blood vessels. In precancer, the cells themselves in that top lining layer can be abnormal, meaning the nuclei can be too large or the organization of the cells can be abnormal, but those cells cannot invade into the tissues underneath. The difference is with women’s cancers, the cancer cells are abnormal but they can also invade into those blood vessel layers and supportive tissue layers underneath.

[Dr. Kowalski shows a drawing of how cells of the cervix look under a microscope]

The upper left hand corner shows how normal cells look. The cells in the upper right hand corner show signs of inflammation. In the lower right hand corner, you can see how things change when precancer is present. The nuclei get larger and the cells start to look a little more irregular. But when women’s cancers are present, the cells are wildly abnormal, the nuclei are huge and the cells look totally different than normal cells. This shows you how the cells look different in women’s cancers versus precancer, but again in a cancer the cells not only look different, but they also have the ability to invade into the structures below.

If you have questions about your own condition, I definitely recommend that you talk to your doctor about that in detail, but you can also get a lot of information from my book, Not Your Mother’s Hysterectomy: A Transformation in Women’s Health Care. Check it out on the web or Amazon.com and there’s a lot more description about this problem.

Dr. Kowalski has served the Las Vegas valley since 1998 as a skilled gynecological oncologist specializing in hysterectomies and cancer treatment of the female reproductive system. If you are interested in learning more about precancer cells or getting your own biopsy, make an appointment with Dr. Kowalski of NVSCC.

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