Smear tests – have you had yours?

Every year, around 3200 women in the UK are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 850 individuals will die from the disease. Worldwide, there are more than 570,000 cases and 311,000 deaths each year, making it the fourth most common cancer in women (according to the World Health Organisation or WHO). However, when detected early and managed effectively, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable forms of cancer. It is important to make sure that you attend your smear test when invited. The WHO plans to eliminate cervical cancer within a generation through screening and prevention which will make it the first cancer to be eradicated.


What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is caused by a change in cells on the cervix – which is the opening to the womb from the vagina. The changes are caused by a group of viruses known as HPV or human papillomaviruses. HPV can be present on the skin, mouth and genitalia and not cause any problems. In some people, certain types of HPV known as ‘high risk’ types can cause changes to the cells of the cervix which may go on to cause cancer. HPV is easy to catch and can be passed on through any skin to skin contact of the genital area. Also through vaginal, oral and anal sex so it’s important to always use a condom during sex. It is very common, there are no symptoms so you will not know if you have HPV. It can be detected through the cervical screening programme (smear test) and helps prevent cancer developing.


National screening programme

A smear test is part of the national cervical screening programme which is offered to ladies and trans-genders in the highest risk age groups which includes those aged 25 to 64. The smear test is not a test for cancer but will check the health of your cervix. It helps to prevent cancer by detecting the presence of HPV. The test is usually carried out at your local GP surgery by a female doctor or nurse so make sure you are registered. You will be invited by letter once every three years if you are aged 25 to 49 and then once every five years for those aged up to 64.


What will happen during the appointment?

The test is very straightforward, taking about ten minutes for the appointment during which your healthcare professional will explain the process. You will lie down, and they will insert a small, rounded tool called a speculum to see your cervix. They will use a small, soft brush to take a sample of cells. These cells will be sent off to a laboratory to be tested for HPV and to identify any abnormal cells and you will be notified of the result. Occasionally you may experience some light spotting, or bleeding after the test which should go away after a few hours. You may feel apprehensive about having a smear test. If that is the case, the nurse or other health professional can help guide you through the process and provide advice to help you feel more comfortable.


How important is it that I attend my smear test when invited?

Screening (or smear tests) is one of the best ways to prevent cervical cancer from developing. It is your choice as to whether or not you wish to attend when you are invited. However early detection of HPV and potentially abnormal cells on your cervix can lead to early treatment, preventing cancer developing and could save your life. Cancers are graded in four stages with stage one being early and stage four being advanced; for cervical cancer, the rate of survival for stage one cancers is 95%, reducing to 15% for those diagnosed at stage four.


What happens if my smear test is abnormal?

There is no treatment for HPV and many infections clear up after two years. However you will be monitored more regularly for any abnormal cell changes. If any changes are found, you will be referred for a colposcopy. This is similar to a smear test but is carried out in a hospital clinic and a microscope with a light is used to look at your cervix. The appointment takes about 20 minutes and may involve a biopsy. This is when a small sample of tissue taken for examination in a laboratory. You may be offered treatment immediately to remove abnormal cells or in some cases you may wait until the results of the biopsy are known. There is a risk that abnormal cells may become cancerous so removing the cells prevents cancer developing. This is why smear tests are so important as they help detect risks and prevent cancer developing.