Cervical cancer is the 14th most common cancer in the UK, with incidence rates highest in women aged 30 to 34. For this reason, the UK government offers cervical cancer screening to women between the ages of 25 and 49. Also known as a ‘smear test’, cervical cancer screening can look for signs of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can reduce the risks of contracting cervical cancer later in life.
There’s no need to contact your doctor about a smear test, unless you’re not yet registered with a surgery. The NHS will send you an invitation letter shortly after your 25th birthday. You do not have to accept the invitation, but a smear test can help to detect early signs of cancer including HPV.
The cervical cancer screening age is 25. Chances of contracting cervical cancer under this age are extremely low, but you should speak to your doctor if you notice any of the following:
Vaginal bleeding between periods, or during/after sex
Pain or discomfort during sex
Unexplained lower back pain.
What does the smear test involve?
You’ll be invited to have a smear test at age 25, and then every three years up until the age of 49. At age 50, you’ll be offered a test every five years, which ceases at age 65. You will be offered a test after age 65 if you have any abnormal results, or if you’ve not had a test since you turned 50.
You’ll be seen by a female practice nurse or doctor in a private room. You may wish to wear a loose-fitting skirt to make this process easier.
Your doctor will insert a lubricated speculum into the vagina, which will help her to see your cervix. She’ll then use a small brush to take a sample of cells from your cervix. You may want to consider breathing exercises to help you feel more relaxed. The test is not usually painful, though it can be uncomfortable – but it only lasts a few seconds.
This sample is then sent to a lab for testing. Doctors are looking for evidence of HPV, which may require further tests.
After your test
You may notice a very small amount of ‘spotting’ (bleeding) after your test. If you bleed heavily, you should speak to your GP as soon as possible.
Your doctor will tell you when your results should be available. These arrive by letter and usually come within a few weeks. Don’t panic if you don’t hear back straight away – the majority of people have normal results.
Very occasionally, results may be unclear. In these cases, you’ll be asked to come back within three months.
If HPV is found
If doctors find evidence of the human papillomavirus, they will either:
Invite you to come back for a screening in one year, rather than three
Invite you to a colposcopy (a further examination of the cervix).
HPV is extremely common and most people will get it at some point. In most cases, the body’s immune system fights it naturally and there is no need to panic. This is why you will have to go back in one year to make sure that your body has fought it off.
If you’re invited to a colposcopy, the process will be very similar to your cervical smear. The colposcopy takes place in the hospital rather than your GP surgery, and looks for abnormal cells. Around six out of 10 people who get a colposcopy have abnormal cells, and may sometimes need treatment to remove them.
Since 2008, UK schoolgirls aged 12 to 13 have had the chance to receive an HPV vaccination. This comes in two doses, starting in year 8 and then followed up between six and 24 months later.
There is absolutely no need to feel embarrassed or anxious about having a cervical screening. The smear is conducted completely privately by a female doctor, and the whole procedure takes no longer than 10 minutes.
Remember, the sooner a cancer is detected, the lower the risk. Contact York Against Cancer today to find out more about cervical cancer screening.
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