Mayo Clinic Health Library

Question

Atypical cells: Are they cancer?

Do atypical cells usually mean cancer?

Updated: 09-21-2012

Answer

Atypical cells are cells that appear abnormal under a microscope, but they aren't necessarily cancerous. The presence of atypical cells is sometimes referred to as "dysplasia." Many factors can make normal cells appear atypical, including inflammation and infection. Even normal aging can make cells appear abnormal.

Atypical cells can change back to normal cells if the underlying cause is removed or resolved. This can happen spontaneously. Or it can be the result of a specific treatment.

Atypical cells don't necessarily mean you have cancer. However, it's still important to make sure there's no cancer present or that a cancer isn't just starting to develop.

If your doctor identifies atypical cells, close follow-up is essential. In some cases, your doctor may simply monitor the atypical cells to make sure they don't become more abnormal. Other tests or scans may be useful, depending on your specific circumstances. In other cases, your doctor may recommend a particular treatment to try to reverse the process that's causing the atypical cells. And sometimes, your doctor may need to obtain a sample of tissue — such as a biopsy — to make sure you don't have cancer or another serious condition.

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