According to Cancer Research UK over 3000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year with around 30% of those dying from the disease. However, most cases of cervical cancer are preventable with regular screening.
A cervical screening test (also commonly referred to as a smear or pap test) looks for changes in the cells of your cervix. It is not specifically a test for cancer but can detect any abnormal cells that could lead to serious problems like cervical cancer in the future. It is common that cervical cancer may not present any symptoms at all until it is at an advanced stage - which is why it is crucial to be screened on a regular basis.
WHEN SHOULD YOU HAVE A SMEAR TEST?
It is recommended that all women are screened every 2–3 years between the ages of 20–49, and every five years from 50–64. Women over the age of 65 are no longer screened.
The NHS provides an automated service where those who are registered with a GP Surgery will be routinely invited for a smear test at the appropriate time interval.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Smear tests are usually conducted by a specially trained nurse or general practitioner at the surgery where you are registered. You can also choose to be tested at your local sexual health clinic, well woman clinic, or by a private specialist such as a Gynaecologist.
You will need to remove clothing from the waist down then lie on your back on an examination table. A speculum will be inserted and gently opened allowing the practitioner to see the cervix or neck of the womb. A thin plastic brush is then used to gently scrape a few cells from the surface of the cervix which are then sent to a pathologist to be examined for any abnormalities, including the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).
The test is generally not painful, and at worst may provide some mild discomfort.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
If any abnormalities are shown in your test results, you will receive an immediate referral to the gynaecology department at your local hospital who will conduct further examinations and determine whether any treatment is required. In some instances, if your test was inconclusive, you may be asked to repeat it.
THE GOOD NEWS!
Since a regular screening programme was introduced in the UK the risk of advanced cancer for women aged 35-64 has been reduced by over 90%, and generally, an abnormal result will NOT lead to cancer if treatment takes place.