When you hit 25 or sometimes, a little bit before, you will automatically receive a letter through the post. Sadly, not an exciting letter like the one you get from the Queen when you reach 100. This letter is inviting you for your smear test.
Cervical Screening. The dreaded “smear”. Receiving this letter can make you nervous, let’s not lie, having your privates looked at is an awkward experience.
But it’s something all us women will have to go through, it is something we all get invited for, and it is really important for you to attend.
A simple, quick procedure that could save our lives. So why do so many of us skip the checks?
What is a smear test?
A smear test (real name: cervical screening) is the method of detecting abnormal, and potentially cancerous cells, on the cervix.
Screening is offered to women from the ages of 25 to 64, and is performed every 3 to 5 years, depending on your age and results.
Though frequently mistaken as a test for cancer, it is actually designed to check the health of your cervix.
Around 1 in 10 women have abnormal cells and whilst a lot of them do not cause problems, some of them can lead to cervical cancer. If these cells are detected, it is important to get them treated to prevent this.
What happens during one?
The smear test itself is very straight forward and takes less than 5 minutes to carry out.
A speculum is inserted into your vagina to hold open the walls so the cervix can be seen. It feels a bit tight but mainly just cold.
A small, soft brush is then gently used to collect some cells and this bit, you can hardly feel.
Try to relax as much as possible (as hard as this may be) as this makes the test easier to carry out.
It isn’t painful but if you find it painful or uncomfortable you must notify the clinician conducting the procedure.
Who conducts the examination?
One reason that so many woman choose not to have their Cervical Screening is due to embarrassment of having someone looking at their private parts, or the fear of having a male Nurse or GP doing the procedure.
Smear Tests are usually conducted by one of the female Practice Nurses at your local GP surgery, or a female GP, all of whom have been specifically trained to do so and have performed on many women.
They will not hold judgement, and treat each and every patient with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
What happens next?
After the test, you are free to carry of with your day as normal and the test is sent off to a lab.
You will receive the results within two weeks. The lab will test your cells for abnormalities and for HPV. Remember that vaccine you got in school around 14/15? That was for HPV.
Your test will come back either with a positive or negative result.
For a negative result, great news! Return in 3 years for another smear test.
For a positive result, this doesn’t mean bad news, it just means you need further testing. A positive result is not neccessarily a bad thing and 1 in 10 women will receive a positive result.
What if I have abnormal cells?
There are two types of abnormal result;
- Borderline or low grade changes.
- Moderate or Severe (high grade) changes.
If you receive a low grade result it simply means that although there are some abnormal cells, they are very close to being normal and will most likely disappear without treatment.
Your sample will also be tested for HPV, and if this isn’t found then you are at a very low risk of developing cervical cancer at this point in time. But, if HPV is found you will be offered a further examination called a Colposcopy.
On the other hand, if you receive a high grade result your sample will not be tested for HPV and instead you will be offered a Colposcopy to closer check the cells on your cervix.
For this, special liquids are applied to your cervix to highlight abnormal cells. If the cells are obvious, they may be treated immediately but if not, they may take a biopsy.
Either way, you will be treated and your risk of these cells developing into cancer will be significantly reduced.
Once again, an abnormal result does not always mean caner, but if they are not treated appropriately, it may develop into cervical cancer.
Whichever result you get, it’s ok and even though a smear test may feel awkward and uncomfortable, it is super important and ultimately, to look after your health.
Do I actually need it?
Deciding whether to have your Cervical Screening or not is ultimately up to the individual, no one can force you to have one done against your own will.
But to potentially catch or reduce the risk of developing Cervical Cancer, is it an opportunity you can risk refusing.
Around 3,000 cases of Cervical Cancer are diagnosed in the UK every year and it is estimated that around 5,000 cases of Cervical Cancer are prevented each year because of the Cervical Screening Programme.
To some people those numbers might not sound big, but for the peace of mind that you’re not at risk, what have you got to lose.
For more information, visit the NHS website so you are fully informed before you make your decision.