We had a doctor tell us that you spend about 3 times the amount of time in a room explaining a finding of an abnormal pap smear than you do explaining a finding of full blown cervical cancer. This is my response to a friend asking about HPV:
HPV, the kind you are referring to, is a virus that affects certain kinds of mucosa (internal goey tissue). It can infect other kinds of tissue and give common hand warts and other stuff, but unfortunately for everyone, the kinds of HPV people care about basically just enjoy the genital mucosa and anal mucosa. I mean, who doesn't. Anyway, there are a whole lot of different kinds (like 130) and there are 4 that people mostly care about. 2 that cause most of the genital warts (6 and 11). By definition, they aren't really a problem. Ugly, but not really a problem. By the very fact that they are causing a wart, that means they are being harmless.
The real problem is a few other strains that like to bury themselves into DNA (because it's soft and warm and there's candy in there) and hang out causing bad changes in genital and anal tissues, with types 16 and 18 causing most of the trouble. They can, although seldom, cause cancer (cervical and anal).
Now it's only certain strains, mostly 16 and 18, and they only bury themselves sometimes (in general, sexually active people have a 50% lifetime risk of exposure to the bad kinds, 75% lifetime risk of all kinds), and from there, only rarely do they actually cause cancer (1.3% lifetime risk of invasive cancer). And, the great part for us is, they only ever do so in a very predictable fashion. That is, they move from burying themselves, to a sort of abnormal, precancerous tissue, to full blown invasive, bad cancer. Many cancers just pop in, full blown, no warning, totally uninvited. Cervical and Anal at least have the decency to bring a bottle of wine.
So, a pap smear checks for the presence of these precancerous tissues, and a polyposcopy (or colposcopy) is an examination (scope) of the vaginal cavity and cervix (polyp and colpos respectively. I'm kidding, not that medical terms are that far off from the ridiculous, but if the latin term for vagina were polyp, it would give a whole different meaning to certain nasal issues) looking for abnormal tissues and polyps to sample and evaluate to see what sort of stage they at in the progression of HPV, if any. Basically it's the next step after an abnormal pap smear.
The beauty to all this is that, when caught early, it's super duper treatable. That's why they do pap smears. Death rates from cervical cancer have plummeted since the pap caught on (first tried as a follow up to the macarena, then realized to be a far more potent test than dance move, particularly because of the part in the dance when the vagina is swabbed. Went fine in Europe, didn't catch on in the US. Americans are prude). And with the guardasil vaccine, things are expected to really turn the corner.