A review of all available cervical smears from 96 women who subsequently developed invasive cervical carcinoma was undertaken. The aim of the study was to determine the incidence of confirmed negative smears prior to the histologic diagnosis of carcinoma and investigate the relationship between the duration and grade of smear abnormality, the patients' age and the histologic types of cervical carcinoma. The results indicate that only 10% of women had confirmed negative smears, the majority occurring more than 7 years before the diagnosis of carcinoma. In contrast, 89% of young women (under 40 years of age) had a significant abnormality (moderate dyskaryosis or worse) up to 6 years before diagnosis. There is evidence to suggest that the preinvasive phase of cervical carcinoma may be shorter in younger women and that the less common types of cervical carcinoma occur more frequently in this group. The combination of inadequate clinical follow up and false negative cytology may have allowed a significant proportion of these women to develop invasive cervical carcinoma. Possible reasons for false negative smears have been identified and methods aimed at decreasing their frequency are discussed.
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