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What are Precancerous Cells?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Precancerous cells are cells with an abnormal appearance suggestive of an increased cancer risk. These cells are not cancerous themselves, but can precede the development of cancer. When a patient has precancerous cells, they are an indicator that the patient should be monitored carefully in the future. Consistent screening and monitoring will help a doctor identify cancer early, if it shows up, allowing for prompt provision of treatment. Precancerous cells can also indicate the need for prophylactic treatment to prevent the appearance of cancer.

Such cells are identified in the laboratory by analyzing a sample of cells from the patient's body. A doctor may take a cell biopsy if physical changes have been observed and there is a concern about cancer, or a biopsy may be taken as part of a routine medical screening like a Pap test for women. A lab technician will look at the cells under a microscope, examining them for signs of abnormalities.

Precancerous cells are not normal in appearance, but they are also not invasive. The cells have arisen from cells naturally present in the area where the biopsy was taken, and are usually older cells that are not dying or are dividing in unexpected ways. The abnormal cell growth is not spreading, and does not carry a risk of appearing in other parts of the body. A cell abnormality is often seen when people have infections, inflammation, or irritation, and precancerous cells are often linked with chronic irritation.

If abnormal cells are identified in a biopsy sample, a doctor may request a repeat test to confirm or follow up. In addition, the patient will be interviewed to see if there is an explanation. For example, if a patient recently had a yeast infection, some abnormal cells might be expected on a Pap because of the associated inflammation and irritation, and the cells might not be a cause for concern. If there is no clear reason for abnormal cells to be present, the cells will be treated as precancerous.

Recommendations for patients with precancerous cells can include a wait and see approach to check for changes, along with recommendations for increased frequency of screenings and tests. If the patient's future tests come up clean repeatedly, screenings can be stepped back to a more normal frequency. Another option can be prophylactic treatment to kill cancer cells before they have a chance to spread, like a prescription for tamoxifen offered to a woman with precancerous cells in her breast.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a TheHealthBoard researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By amypollick — On Oct 30, 2013

@anon353255: I am not a doctor, but I believe when you're talking about skin cancer, the doctor should be able to tell if the biopsy cells are pre-cancerous, or are malignant, what kind of cells they are (e.g., squamous, basal) and the stage.

I'm not sure exactly how they tell, other than they know what to look for when they examine the cells under a microscope. Cancer cells look a certain way, and that's what your doctor will be looking for. I know she will sample from different places around the area of concern, to make sure she gets a good, representative sample, and doesn't miss anything.

Good luck. I hope it turns out to be nothing at all.

By anon353255 — On Oct 29, 2013

My doctor found a place on my back that she biopsied today. She said it looked suspicious and was going to send it to the lab to have them check for pre cancerous (melanoma) cells. I told her I was worried and she said she doesn't think it's a melanoma but wants to have it checked.

I have had this spot for several years and it hasn't gotten any bigger but I decided to finally get it checked. I'm wondering how much the doctor can tell at the biopsy stage. I mean, can she tell by looking that it is not at the advanced cancer stage yet, or what, if anything, can she tell at biopsy?

By anon333141 — On May 03, 2013

I had a uterine biopsy, which was clean. Then, during an ablation, precancerous cells were removed (didn't know they were precancerous till they were evaluated). Now that the ablation is completed, and keeping in mind that my biopsy was clean, how can they monitor if these precancerous cells if my uterus is scarred by the ablation and the biopsy didn't show anything in the first place? Am I better off just having a hysterectomy?

By anon188520 — On Jun 21, 2011

I was told I had pre-cancerous cells on my cervix and they did a freeze. Since that time, I've experienced a lot of pain under my umbilical cord and under my armpits during ovulation and during my menstruation. Is it okay? Or what should I do? Is cancer completely ruled out when this therapy is done?

By anon174092 — On May 09, 2011

I had a pre cancerous cell on my hairline. They froze that spot. Can I dye my hair or get a permanent now?

By anon169902 — On Apr 23, 2011

My significant other said that due to smoking they found some precancerous cells. How harmful are they? What can be done about them?

By anon159911 — On Mar 14, 2011

All in the last year, my daughter was found to have precancerous cells on her cervix, in her intestine, and in her thyroid (which was cancerous and was removed, but the lymph nodes were clear). Should she undergo some sort of prophylactic chemotherapy, or other prophylactic therapy?

By anon158936 — On Mar 09, 2011

My sister was recently diagnosed after a biopsy with cervical precancerous cells. Our mother was misdiagnosed and died with advanced cervical cancer. Should my sister insist upon a complete hysterectomy. She is 48 years old.

By anon138095 — On Dec 30, 2010

I just had a biopsy on a black spot (mole) inside my ear. The report came back that there were precancerous cells. I was called by the doctor to make another appointment. Very concerned that cancer could spread inside the ear and beyond. It helps to know that this will not spread. This article was very helpful.

By anon136645 — On Dec 23, 2010

Yes you can have precancerous cells of the skin.

I recently had a biopsy done of reddish-white spots on my forearm and the results came back as precancerous, so my doctor will check me more often and more thoroughly for any changes.

By anon133868 — On Dec 12, 2010

I've just been diagnosed as having precancerous cells on my cervix. understandably when i opened the letter and saw the words precancerous i was very distressed. fortunately after reading up on it on this site, I'm a lot calmer and am awaiting leep treatment so would like to thank you for the information i have read.

By ivanka — On Dec 08, 2010

The detection of precancerous cells in the uterus is a great preventative cervical cancer "treatment." It's why regular pap smears are helpful -- you can find precancerous cells from a pap smear.

By laluna — On Dec 07, 2010

@Orehnjaca - You can have precancerous cells anywhere.

By apolo72 — On Dec 07, 2010

Orehnjaca - Good question. I think the term can be used when talking about any kind of potential cancer. But you're right, people do seem to refer to precancerous cells with respect to cervical cancer and HPV and pap smears.

Did you know they're also called premalignant cells, by the way?

By Orehnjaca — On Dec 07, 2010

Are precancerous cells commonly discussed with respect to any kind of cancerous cells, like liver cancer? Can you have precancerous cells in the skin? Because it seems like you only hear about precancerous cells in the cervix.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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