|I am a cytotechnologist, which means I spend my days staring into a microscope at cell samples. The primary focus of my work is Pap smears, which are samples taken from the os (or opening) of the uterine cervix. My job is to scan thousands of cells looking for ones that show evidence of cancer or pre-cancerous changes. A Pap smear may have 300,000 cells on it, many of which are piled on top of each other, along with blood, inflammation and other obscuring factors. Sometimes I may find as few as three or four abnormal cells out of all those cells, and that's what it's all about. Finding the needle in a haystack.
The rewards of finding those few cells are great, because I know that woman can be treated, and possibly avoid much more serious problems down the road. Since the advent of the Pap smear in the mid-1900's, the rate of death from cervical cancer in the United States has declined 70%. It feels good to know that I can have a part in saving many women's lives.
There is developing technology to enhance the field of cytology, such as automated screening devices and alternate methods of making slides. These are designed to either enhance the collection process in order to provide better cell samples, or to replace or enhance human screening. So far, nothing has completely taken the place of a cytotechnologist. Computers can determine that a smear may contain abnormal cells, but they cannot determine the nature of the abnormality. (Click here for information about one such automated screening system.) Human judgment, that of cytotechs and doctors called pathologists, is required to make the final call.
Sometimes, for all our technology and experience, the needle escapes us, and the stress associated with knowing that is great. There are lots of reasons I may miss abnormal cells, not the least of which is that I am human and making mistakes comes with the territory. That's not an excuse, just a fact. Fortunately, cervical dysplasia (the abnormality that can develop into cervical cancer) progresses very slowly. If a woman has regular Pap smears and an abnormality is not detected on one, hopefully it will be picked up on her next exam. That's why it is so critical to have regular exams. Click here to receive Pap smear reminders.
In addition to Pap smears, cytotechs also screen cell samples from many human body sites, including breast, lung, thyroid, bladder, and most other internal organs. Cytology is generally the least-invasive way of obtaining cells from these sites, and can save patients from undergoing more drastic procedures, like surgery.
Because of the responsibility we bear, being a cytotech is a very stressful job. Cancer is very serious business, and we feel the weight of it every day. On the next page, I'll show you some of the ways my colleagues and I deal with that stress and keep our spirits high. .