What does it mean if you have precancerous cells? (2023)

The term precancerous cells may sound scary. First, it should be clear that not all precancerous cells become cancerous. In fact, most don't. But these are abnormal cells, somewhere between normal cells and cancer cells.

Many people have heard of precancerous cells.cervixthat are found duringPapilla. However, precancerous cells can appear almost anywhere in the body, such as the skin, breasts, or colon. Unlike cancer cells, they do not invade nearby tissues or spread to distant regions of the body.

This article takes an in-depth look at what precancerous cells do and how serious they can be when found. Describes some possible causes of precancerous cells and how they can be treated.

What does it mean if you have precancerous cells? (1)


Precancerous cells are also known as premalignant cells. They are defined as abnormal cells that can become cancer cells but are not invasive or spread.

The concept of precancerous cells and whether or not they progress can be confusing at times. This is because the answer is not always correct. In general, the cells do not go from normal on the first day to premalignant on the second day and then on the second day.Krebson the third day.

Sometimes precancerous cells turn into cancer, but most of the time they don't. They can stay the same, that is, remain abnormal but not invasive, or they can even return to normal.

Once again, it is important to note that precancerous cells are not cancer cells. This means that they will not spread to other areas of the body if left alone. They are simply abnormal cells that can undergo changes over time that would make them cancer cells.

In theory, if the cells are removed before they turn cancerous, the condition should be 100% curable. However, it is not necessary to kill all the precancerous cells right away.

Another point of confusion is that cancer cells and precancerous cells coexist in many tumors. For example, some people with breast cancer have cancer cells in one tumor, but there may be other areas in the breast and even the tumor itself where precancerous cells are found.

Cancer cells: how they originate and characteristics

Types of precancerous lesions

Cancers that start in epithelial cells (about 85% of cancers) can have a precancerous state before becoming cancer. These cells are found in the skin and in the tissues of many organs.

Some precancerous lesions include:

  • Neoplasia intraepitelial cervical(CIN): a precancerous condition of cervical cancer
  • Barrett's esophagus: Abnormal cells that can developesophagus cancer
  • atypical lobular hyperplasia: May progress to breast cancer
  • Adenomatous polyps in the colon: Can turn into colon cancer
  • actinic keratosis: abnormal skin changes that can progress to squamous cell carcinoma of the skin
  • Dysplastic moles: may progress to melanoma or indicate an increased risk of melanoma
  • Bronchial epithelial dysplasia: can progress to lung cancer
  • Atrophic gastritis: abnormal changes in the stomach that can develop into gastric cancer
  • Bowen's disease: can progress to invasive skin cancer


Precancerous cells are abnormal cells that can form in the colon, skin, and many other parts of the body. They are not cancer cells, but they are not normal cells either. Most of these cells do not become cancer. However, they have changed in ways that suggest cancer can develop.

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meaning of dysplasia

The word "dysplasia" is often used to mean the same thing as "precancerous cells," but there are some differences. In many cases, when health professionals talk about dysplasia, they are actually referring to these abnormal cells that can become cancer cells.

But in some cases, the term "severe dysplasia" is used to describe cells that areofcancerous. They are still contained in the tissues where they originated and have not spread. This is known ascarcinoma in situ.

Precancerous changes are usually described in terms of the grade or degree of abnormality. Severity and degree are the two main methods used to describe them.


Dysplasia can range from mild to severe:

  • mild dysplasia: Mild dysplasia refers to cells that are only slightly abnormal. These cells usually do not become cancer.
  • Moderate Dysplasia: These cells are moderately abnormal and have a higher risk of developing cancer.
  • severe dysplasia: This is the most extreme abnormality seen before a cell is called cancerous. Severe dysplasia is much more likely to develop into cancer.

An example that can illustrate this is thedisplasia cervicalfound on some Pap smears. Cells that have mild dysplasia rarely become cancerous.

There is some confusion about exactly where to draw the line between severe dysplasia and carcinoma in situ. Carcinoma in situ is a term that literally translates to "cancer in situ." These cancer cells have not yet crossed the so-called basement membrane. They did not spread.


Another way to describe the severity of precancerous changes in cells is to use a grading system. In the case of cells from the cervix, these grades are often used when performing a biopsy after detecting dysplasia on the Pap smear.

  • low grade dysplasia: Minor cell changes are unlikely to cause cancer.
  • high grade dysplasia:High-level cell changes are much more likely to develop into cancer.

An example of this would be low-grade dysplasia seen on a cervical biopsy. The likelihood of these changes leading to cancer is quite low.In contrast, high-grade colonic dysplasia is associated withcolon polypshave a high risk of progressingcolon cancer.


Dysplasia describes physical changes in cells that are identified when viewed under a microscope. These changes can be mild, moderate, or severe. The disturbances can also be described as low or high grade. The risk of these cells becoming cancerous is higher when they are severe or have high-grade dysplasia.


There are some factors that can cause cells to become precancerous. They vary depending on the specific type of cells involved. In the past, researchers believed that the damage was caused bycarcinogenic, or carcinogens in the environment that turn healthy cells abnormal.

Scientists working in the field of epigenetics are now learning that the cells in our bodies are more resilient. A variety of factors, such as carcinogens, hormones, or perhaps even stress, all interact. The combination determines how abnormal changes in a cell can progress.

One way to understand the causes is to look at possible reasons why healthy cells can become damaged, leading to genetic changes which in turn lead to abnormal growth and development.


Viral, bacterial and parasitic infections account for 15 to 20% of cancers worldwide. This number is lower in the US and other developed countries.

for example aHuman papillomavirus (HPV)The infection can cause inflammation that leads to precancerous cells in the cervix. Most HPV infections clear up before abnormal cell changes occur. Once dysplasia starts, it may go away on its own or with treatment.

On the other hand, it can also lead to cervical cancer if left untreated.HPV is also a major cause of dysplasia, which can progress to head and neck cancer, such as:Tongue cancermithroat cancer.

Another example isHelicobacter pylori(H. pylori) infection. These bacteria cause inflammation and can lead to a condition called chronic atrophic gastritis. This can lead to precancerous changes in the stomach lining, which in turn can lead to cancer.Stomach cancer.

(Video) Ask Dr K: What is the Difference Between Precancer and Cancer

What is Helicobacter pylori infection?

Chronic inflamation

Chronic (persistent) inflammation in tissues can lead to precancerous changes. An example is in people who havegastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)for a longer period. Inflammation of the esophagus caused by stomach acid can lead to a condition known as Barrett's esophagus.

About 0.5% of people with Barrett's esophagus develop esophageal cancer each year. An important area of ​​research is whether removing areas of high-grade dysplasia caused by the disease reduces the risk of developing esophageal cancer.

Another example is inflammation of the colon in people withinflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD can lead to colonic dysplasia polyps, which in turn can lead to colon cancer.

chemical exposure

Chronic exposure to tobacco smoke, air pollution, and some industrial chemicals can cause dysplasia dysplasiabronchi, the main airways to the lungs. If caught early, precancerous cells can sometimes be treated with cryosurgery. This is a procedure to freeze cells to prevent them from growing before they become lung cancer.

latency and progression

A discussion of precancerous cell changes provides a good opportunity to talk about another concept that can be difficult to understand. This is called latency.

OlatencyIt is defined as the period of time between exposure to a carcinogen (a carcinogen) and the subsequent development of cancer.

People are often surprised when they develop cancer many years after exposure to a carcinogen. For example, some people are diagnosed with lung cancer even though they quit smoking three decades ago.

Genetic damage occurs when cells are first exposed to a cancer-causing agent. But it's usually an accumulation of this damage and associated genetic mutations that causes a cell to become precancerous.

The cell can then go through stages of mild to moderate dysplasia, and then severe, before becoming a cancer cell. This progression to cancer may also be limited by other factors in your environment, or may even fall on onenormal cell. That's why a healthy diet and exercise are important, even if you've been exposed to a carcinogen.

The process is much more complex than you might think, but understanding the basics helps explain the latency period that occurs in many types of cancer.

When do cells become cancerous?

Most of the time, the answer to how long it can take for a precancerous cell to become cancerous varies. The response also depends on the type of cell involved.

In a study that looked at 101 people with abnormal cellular changes in the vocal cords, 15 of them developed invasive cancer.

One of them presented mild dysplasia, one moderate dysplasia, seven severe dysplasia, and six carcinoma in situ. In 73% of these people, their precancerous lesions turned into invasive vocal cord cancer within one year. The rest of them developed cancer years later.

Terms that describe progress

There are many terms that describe cells that may seem difficult. Another example may help clarify these concepts.

ComLung squamous cell carcinoma, it appears that cells progress in a specific way before cancer develops. It starts with normal lung cells. The first change ishyperplasia, which means that the cells are growing more or faster than expected.

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The second step isMetaplasia. Here the cells change into an abnormal cell type that is not normally present. Esophageal metaplasia, for example, is when cells similar to those normally found in the small intestine are present. This can lead to esophageal cancer.

The third stage is dysplasia, followed by carcinoma in situ and finally invasive squamous cell carcinoma.


People with precancerous cells usually have no symptoms. If symptoms are present, they depend on the location of these cellular changes.

In the cervix, for example, cellular changes can causeabnormal uterine bleeding.Or precancerous changes in the mouth can appear as white patches.

In the stomach, colon, and other parts of the digestive tract, precancerous changes can be seen during colonoscopy, upper GI endoscopy, and other procedures.

And in regions that aren't visible to the naked eye, such as the tissue lining the airways, dysplasia is more commonly found when a screening biopsy is done for another reason.

To diagnose

A physical exam or imaging tests may suggest the presence of abnormal cells, but a biopsy is needed to make the diagnosis. After removing a section of tissue, pathologists examine the cells under a microscope to look for signs that the cells are precancerous or cancerous. You can determine the stage and grade of the cells.


Treatment of precancerous cells also depends on their location in the body. In some cases, only close monitoring is recommended to see if the degree of dysplasia progresses or resolves without treatment.

Often, precancerous cells are removed by a procedure such ascryotherapy(freezing the cells) or surgery to remove the area where the abnormal cells are found.

Even if the abnormal cells are removed, it is important to remember that whatever originally caused the abnormal cells may affect other cells in the future, and careful long-term monitoring is important.

If abnormal cervical cells are treated with cryotherapy, it is still important to be aware of future problems with the Pap smear.And when Barrett's esophagus is treated with cryotherapy, you need to continue to monitor the health of the esophageal tissue.

For some abnormalities, your doctor may recommend chemoprevention. This is the use of a drug that lowers the risk that the cells will become abnormal again later.

For example, treating an H. pylori infection removes the bacteria from the stomach. It seems to reduce precancerous cells and the development of gastric cancer.

Researchers are studying the use of various drugs and vitamins to see if their use in current and former smokers will reduce the risk of developing lung cancer in the future.

Remember also that, in some cases, the progression of precancerous changes can be influenced by environmental factors. This includes the foods we eat, the amount of exercise we get, and the lifestyle choices we make. A diet rich in foods that contain certain vitamins, for example, can help the body eliminate the HPV virus more quickly.

Likewise, it is important to consider tobacco and other substances that may be responsible for precancerous changes. Avoiding them can reduce the risk that abnormal cells will progress or that other precancerous cells will develop in the future.

An example is the situation of smoking and cervical cancer. Although smoking by itself does not appear to cause cervical cancer, smoking combined with an HPV infection increases the chance of developing cancer.



Precancerous cells are cells that show abnormal changes but have not yet become cancer cells. In many cases, they won't. But cancer can develop from these changes, so it's important to detect them through routine tests and other measures.

The abnormal changes seen in these cells are due to a number of causes, which may include infection, inflammation, or environmental exposure. Some precancerous cells only require monitoring. Treatment for other people depends on where they are and what may have caused it.

Discuss any precancerous cells and the appropriate next steps with your doctor.

A word from Verywell

It is never too late to take preventive measures, even if you have been diagnosed with cancer. People who have been diagnosed with cancer may also benefit from learning how to reduce their risk of cancer or prevent it from coming back. Diet, exercise, and other healthy lifestyle choices can help.

Take a moment to read tips to reduce your cancer risk that can help reduce lung and other cancers.diet superfoodsthat can help reduce your risk of getting cancer or getting cancer again.

frequent questions

  • How dangerous are precancerous cells?

    Precancerous cells may or may not turn into cancer over time. Because these cells are abnormal, it is important that they are checked or sometimes removed to reduce the risk of developing cancer later.

  • How are precancerous cervical cells treated?

    Treatments for precancerous cervical cells may include:

    • split with aLoop Electrosurgical Excision Procedures(LEEP) o unKegelbiopsia
    • cryosurgery
    • laser treatment
  • What are precancerous skin cells?

    A precancerous skin growth called actinic keratosis may not be visible at first. Sometimes you can feel it on your skin as a rough patch that is like sandpaper. It can also appear as a reddish patch on the skin. Your dermatologist can help you identify and remove these precancerous spots to make sure they don't turn into squamous cell carcinoma.

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Should I be worried if I have precancerous cells? ›

The takeaway is that a precancerous condition doesn't mean a person has or will get cancer. It simply means a person has an increased risk of cancer, which should serve as a reminder for them to stay current with medical visits and screening tests, and communicate concerns or changes to their health care providers.

What does it mean when a doctor says precancerous? ›

A term used to describe a condition that may (or is likely to) become cancer. Also called premalignant.

Are precancerous cells considered cancer? ›

Not necessarily. Despite what's implied by the prefix, not all precancerous cells progress into cancer. Precancerous cells are abnormal cells that could undergo changes and turn into cancer cells as time goes by. In fact, most precancerous cells do not morph into invasive cancer cells.

How long does it take for precancerous cells to become cancerous? ›

These conditions are not yet cancer. But if they aren't treated, there is a chance that these abnormal changes may become cervical cancer. If left untreated, it may take 10 years or more for precancerous conditions of the cervix to turn into cervical cancer, but in rare cases this can happen in less time.

What do you do if you have precancerous cells? ›

A precancerous lesion affecting these cells is called AIS. Treatments for precancerous lesions include excision (surgical removal of the abnormal area, also referred to as a cone biopsy or conization, or loop electrosurgical excision procedure [LEEP]), cryosurgery (freezing), and laser (high-energy light).

Do precancerous cells spread? ›

Again, it's important to note that cells that are precancerous are not cancer cells. This means that left alone, they will not spread to other regions of the body. They are simply abnormal cells that could, in time, undergo changes that would transform them into cancer cells.

What is the most common precancerous? ›

Some of the most common precancerous conditions include certain colon polyps, which can progress into colon cancer, monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance, which can progress into multiple myeloma or myelodysplastic syndrome. and cervical dysplasia, which can progress into cervical cancer.

Do you get chemo for precancerous cells? ›

Doctors may use a cream called 5-fluorouracil, a form of topical chemotherapy, to destroy numerous actinic keratoses. For example, the cream may be useful for people who have precancerous growths covering the entire back of their hands or a section of their face.

What conditions are precancerous? ›

What is a Precancerous Condition?
  • Smoldering multiple myeloma (SMM) ...
  • Monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) ...
  • Clonal hematopoiesis of indeterminate potential (CHIP) ...
  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)
Jan 24, 2019

Can you stop precancerous? ›

Treatment can prevent a precancerous skin growth from progressing to skin cancer. Some precancerous skin growths go on to become a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.

Is precancerous the same as benign? ›

Most common skin lesions such as moles and tags are benign. A premalignant or precancerous skin lesion carries carries an increased risk of cancer. Malignant skin lesions must be treated immediately.

What does stage 3 precancerous cells mean? ›

Stage 3. Stage 3 means the cancer has spread from the cervix into the structures around it or into the lymph nodes in the pelvis or abdomen. Treatment is usually a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy).

Can precancerous cells come back after being removed? ›

Sometimes cell changes may come back and need further treatment. Having cell changes that come back does not mean you will definitely develop cervical cancer. If you have cell changes that have come back, it is important to speak to your colposcopy team about any questions and preferences you have for treatment.

How do you get rid of precancerous cells in your cervix? ›

Also called loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), this is the most common way of treating precancerous changes of the cervix. The abnormal tissue is removed using a thin wire loop that is heated electrically. The aim is to remove all the abnormal cells from the surface of the cervix.

What is Stage 1 precancerous cervical cells? ›

CIN 1 is usually caused by infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) and is found when a cervical biopsy is done. CIN 1 is not cancer and usually goes away on its own without treatment, but sometimes it can become cancer and spread into nearby tissue.

What foods help precancerous cells? ›

Eat a healthy variety
  • Eat vegetables and fruits in a variety of colors.
  • Choose whole grains.
  • Include plant-based proteins.
  • Limit red meat.
  • Avoid processed meat.
  • Limit salt.
  • Limit alcohol.
  • Avoid sugary beverages and energy-dense foods.

Are we born with precancerous cells? ›

No, we don't all have cancer cells in our bodies. Our bodies are constantly producing new cells, some of which have the potential to become cancerous. At any given moment, we may be producing cells that have damaged DNA, but that doesn't mean they're destined to become cancer.

Can precancerous cells cause symptoms? ›

A precancerous lesion of the cervix often does not cause any signs or symptoms. Symptoms or signs do typically appear with early-stage cervical cancer.

Should I get a hysterectomy if I have precancerous cells? ›

If the precancerous disease is more extensive or involves adenocarcinoma in situ (AIS), and the woman has completed childbearing, a total hysterectomy may be recommended. During a total hysterectomy, the entire uterus (including the cervix) is removed.

What are the types of precancerous? ›

The main types of precancerous lesions include actinic keratosis, actinic cheilitis, Bowen disease, and leukoplakia.

What does precancerous growth mean? ›

A precancerous growth refers to a new mole or lesion on the skin that is not cancer but could develop into cancer if it is not dealt with soon. Many times, cases of melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma begin as precancerous growths.

What is the name for precancerous cells? ›

Actinic keratoses are very common, and many people have them. They are caused by ultraviolet (UV) damage to the skin. Some actinic keratoses can turn into squamous cell skin cancer. Because of this, the lesions are often called precancer.

What is high grade precancerous cells? ›

High-grade SIL - means there are a large number of precancerous cells, and, like low-grade SIL, these precancerous changes involve only cells on the surface of the cervix. The cells often do not become cancerous for many months, perhaps years.

Does precancerous cells mean HPV? ›

Pre-cancerous changes can be detected by the Pap test and treated to prevent cancer from developing. The HPV test looks for infection by high-risk types of HPV that are more likely to cause pre-cancers and cancers of the cervix. HPV infection has no treatment, but a vaccine can help prevent it.

What are the symptoms of precancerous cervical cells? ›

Early-stage cervical cancer generally produces no signs or symptoms. Signs and symptoms of more-advanced cervical cancer include: Vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods or after menopause. Watery, bloody vaginal discharge that may be heavy and have a foul odor.

What happens if precancerous cells are found in a Pap smear? ›

Depending on the precancerous grade of your Pap smear findings — and possibly on HPV results — your doctor may recommend a procedure, called a colposcopy, that involves taking a close look at your cervix with a special magnifying lens. It is possible that biopsies of the cervix will be needed.

How common are precancerous cells on cervix? ›

Considered a precancerous condition, it is caused by a sexually transmitted infection with a common virus, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Cervical dysplasia affects between 250,000 and one million women throughout the United States every year.

Can precancerous cells in the cervix go away on their own? ›

They may go away on their own, or, with time, may grow larger or become more abnormal, forming a high-grade lesion. These precancerous low-grade lesions may also be called mild dysplasia or cervical intraepithelial neoplasia 1 (CIN 1).

What is stage 3 precancerous cervical cells? ›

Severely abnormal cells are found on the surface of the cervix. CIN 3 is usually caused by certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) and is found when a cervical biopsy is done. CIN 3 is not cancer, but may become cancer and spread to nearby normal tissue if not treated.

What are mild precancerous cells on cervix? ›

Cervical dysplasia is a precancerous condition in which abnormal cell growth occurs on the surface lining of the cervix or endocervical canal, the opening between the uterus and the vagina. It is also called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN).

Can precancerous cells come back? ›

Sometimes cell changes may come back and need further treatment. Having cell changes that come back does not mean you will definitely develop cervical cancer. If you have cell changes that have come back, it is important to speak to your colposcopy team about any questions and preferences you have for treatment.

What medication is used for pre cancerous cells? ›

Fluorouracil is in a class of medications called antimetabolites. It works by killing fast-growing cells such as the abnormal cells in actinic keratoses and basal cell carcinoma.

What medication is used for precancerous cells? ›

Imiquimod (Zyclara) is a cream that can be applied to actinic keratoses and some very early basal cell cancers. It causes the immune system to react to the skin lesion and destroy it. It's typically applied at least a few times a week for several weeks, although schedules can vary.


1. Hey It's OK...To Have Abnormal Cells | With Katie Snooks & Shannon Peerless | Glamour UK
(Glamour Magazine UK)
2. What Percentage of Colon Polyps are Cancerous? • Precancerous Polyps | Los Angeles Surgery
(La Peer)
3. Recognizing the symptoms of endometrial cancer
(UW Medicine)
4. Cervical Cancer Signs & Symptoms (& Why They Occur)
(JJ Medicine)
5. Understanding Mechanisms that Govern Formation of Precancerous Colon Lesions
(Thermo Fisher Scientific)
6. Treatment of Cervical Cancer - Joshua G. Cohen, MD | UCLA Obstetrics and Gynecology
(UCLA Health)
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