Cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer among women aged under 35, with two women in the UK losing their lives to the disease every single day.
In the battle to reduce the number of those affected, Cervical Screening Awareness Week – an annual event running from 11 to 17 June – aims to highlight the importance of regular screening tests.
Why it’s so important
According to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, regular cervical screening can prevent up to 75 per cent of cervical cancer cases, saving 5,000 lives per year.
But despite around five million women being invited for screening (formerly known as a smear test), a quarter of women are failing to attend – a figure this awareness week aims to reduce by providing women reassurance around any fears concerning taking the test.
If you have yet to attend a screening, here are some of the most common questions and concerns answered.
What is the test for?
Cervical screening is a test to check the health of the cells of the cervix – it is not a test for cancer. In most cases the test results show that everything is normal, although around 1 in 20 cases show some abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix.
Detecting and removing these abnormal cells can prevent cervical cancer.
Is it free?
Cervical screening is free and all women aged 25 to 64 who are registered with a GP are automatically invited for the test.
This includes women who have had the HPV vaccination.
How often do I need to be tested?
Regular screening means any abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix can be identified early and, if necessary, treated to protect against cancer developing.
Women aged 25 to 49 are advised to attend every three years, 50 to 64 every five years, and those over 65 should attend if they haven’t been screened since age 50, or have recently had abnormal tests.
When should I book my appointment?
The NHS advise trying to book an appointment during the middle of your menstrual cycle (usually 14 days from the start of your last period), as this can ensure a better sample of cells is taken.
It is best to make an appointment when you don’t have your period, if possible.
What happens at the screening?
You will be asked to undress from the waist down and lie on a couch, although some women prefer to wear a dress or a skirt that they can lift up to their waist. A doctor or nurse will gently insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina, which holds the walls open so the cervix can be seen. A sample of cells will then be collected from the surface of your cervix using a small, soft brush.
Is it painful?
Some women find the test slightly uncomfortable, although this is often due to feeling tense about the procedure.
Taking slow, deep breaths will help you to relax, but if you find the test painful, inform the doctor or nurse as they may be able to reduce your discomfort.
Can I request a female doctor or nurse?
Yes, you can ask to be seen by a female member of staff, although this may mean waiting longer for an appointment.
How long will the test take?
The screening normally takes around five minutes to carry out and you should receive the results of the test within two weeks.
The results will be sent to you in the post, with a copy also sent to your GP.
Can I have the test if I’m pregnant?
It is recommended not to have a cervical screening whilst pregnant, but if you have had abnormal results in the past, or your obstetrician has concerns about the health of your cervix, an examination may be considered.
Is this an STI test?
A cervical screening looks for abnormal cervical cells and most abnormalities – more than 98 per cent – are caused by HPV, the Human Papilloma Virus. HPV is passed through skin to skin sexual contact, so a screening does look for this one particular STI – but not all.
I’m not sexually active – do I still need a screening?
The risk of cervical cancer is very low in women who have never had sex, as more than 99 per cent of cervical cancers are linked to infection with sexually transmitted HPV.
As the risk is so low, women who are not sexually active may choose not to have a screening when invited. If you are not currently in a sexual relationship but have been in the past, it is recommended you have regular cervical screening.
For more information about cervical screening, visit the NHS Choices website.