According to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer in women under 35, with two women in the UK dying per day from the disease. Regular screening can prevent up to 75% of cervical cancer, which could save 5,000 lives per year.
But despite the importance of cervical screening, many women are failing to attend their appointments. Research by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust states that 1-in-4 women skip the cervical screening, with the proportion increasing to 1-in-3 among those aged 25 to 29, and 1-in-2 in more deprived regions of the UK.
There are many reasons why women miss their appointment, including embarrassment of their body, past or current sexual abuse, women believing they are healthy due to not having any symptoms, and some women reporting that they didn’t believe having the test done would reduce their chances of having cancer.
This week is National Cervical Screening Awareness Week, an annual event organised by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. The purpose of the week is to promote the importance of regular cervical screening, also known as smear tests.
So let’s take a look at the most commonly asked questions to help alleviate any fears you may have and help you to make an informed choice when it comes to deciding whether to book your cervical screening test.
When you attend your smear test a nurse or doctor will take a sample of cells which are collected from the cervix. These cells are then sent off to the lab and checked for abnormalities that may suggest you are at increased risk of developing cervical cancer in the future.
A lot of women worry that a cervical screening test will hurt. For some the test is uncomfortable but it does not hurt. The nurse or doctor will use a plastic speculum to help open up the vagina so they can see the top of your cervix. Using a small brush, they gently wipe around the edge to collect cells. The whole test takes less than 5 minutes.
Your test results will take about 2 weeks, a paper copy will be posted to you and your doctor.
According to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, it is extremely rare for cervical cancer to be diagnosed from cervical screening. Only about 1 in 2,000 (less than 1%) people with an abnormal cervical screening result will have cervical cancer.
To keep it simple there are three main categories that results will fall into:
- Normal - meaning that there were no changes to the cells and you will be invited back for a smear test in 3-5 years time depending on your age.
- Inadequate - this means that the test could not be read properly, most likely because there weren’t enough cells to examine.
- Abnormal - this indicates that you may have borderline or low-grade cell changes. These changes are very close to being normal and may not need treatment. Further testing is done on your cells in the lab and then a decision is made on the next step to take.
How Often Do I Have to Have a Cervical Screen?
"You will be invited to have a cervical screening from the age of 25 in the UK, every 3 years. This then extends to every 5 years between the ages of 50 - 64. If you have missed a screening you can call your doctor and book a test without waiting to be invited."
Can I have a Smear Test on my Period?
It is unlikely that the doctor will perform the test if you’re on your period as the blood and tissue can interfere with the results. If you have an irregular period you may have to re-arrange your appointment, however, call the doctor and double check first.
Due to the cells being collected from the cervix, it’s possible that you may experience some spotting following the test. This spotting is nothing to worry about and is unlikely that it’s a sign of your period starting. The bleeding should stop after a day. If it doesn’t, contact your nurse or doctor.
Can I protect myself from cervical cancer?There are things you can do to reduce the risk of contracting HPV including:
- Using condoms
- Regularly attending smear tests from the age of 25
- Having the HPV vaccine that is offered to girls aged 11-17
What Are The Symptoms Of Cervical Cancer?
The initial signs of cervical cancer can include:
- Abnormal bleeding during or after sex
- Irregular bleeding between periods
- Post-menopausal bleeding if not on HRT, or have stopped it for 6 weeks or more
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Discomfort or pain during sex
- Lower back pain
As cervical cancer develops there are other symptoms that may become apparent such as:
- Needing to urinate more
- Blood in urine
- Bleeding from the bottom
- Incontinence (not being able to control bladder and bowel movements)
- Swelling in lower limbs
It’s important to add that it’s possible to have cervical cancer without any of the symptoms above. This highlights the importance of having a smear test as this can pick up on any cell abnormalities.
Where can I get more information on Cervical Screening?
During National Cervical Screening Awareness Week there will be stands and information points at some doctor’s surgeries, community centres, and sports centres. You can also pop into your doctor’s surgery to ask any questions you may have.
Jump on social media and check out women’s stories as they share their experiences throughout the week.
If you feel comfortable to talk to a friend or family member they may be able to offer you advice, reassurance, and information.
You can also visit Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust or the National Health Service website for more information.