It’s cervical cancer prevention week! We figured it’s the perfect time to show some love for our cervixes and tell you everything you need to know about your smear test. But let’s start at the beginning. Did you know that 9 women in the UK are diagnosed with cervical cancer every day? And that’s even though 75% of cases could have been prevented with a regular smear test! And even though that’s the case, about 1 in 4 women still doesn’t book an appointment for a smear test. We know, right?! That’s exactly why we have decided that it’s time for a little bit of fun education on the topic and maybe get one or the other to book her appointment today!
Why do you actually need a smear test?
Let’s start by getting the most common misconception out of the way: A smear test is not to see if you have cancer! Rather look at it as a check if the cells on your cervix are all nice and healthy. Don’t believe us? Well, let us give you some facts! Most women who go for a smear test will actually receive a result that shows everything is completely normal and only 1 in 20 women will show any form of abnormalities. So you see, chances are high that everything is unicorns and rainbows down there. But what if the test shows abnormalities? Breathe! There’s absolutely no reason for immediate panic! In many cases, the abnormalities are so minor that those cells will change back to normal all by themselves. If it turns out to be more serious, there are several treatment options including a surgical removal which makes 100% sure that everything nasty is gone.
Why is a smear test so important?
Let us put this simply: It’s so important because it’s the best way for you to protect yourself from cervical cancer. But how does a smear test help to prevent it? Easy! By checking a sample of cells from your cervix for certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) and other abnormalities. This is to discover potential high-risk HPV in your body that can cause abnormalities in your cells if left untreated.
HELP! What is HPV?
We know, it sounds very scary. But it really isn’t, promise! HPV is simply the name for a group of sexually transmitted viruses that most people will encounter at some point in their lives. It is very common and absolutely nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. And you don’t even have to have actual sex to catch it! Any kind of skin-to-skin contact of the genital area or sharing of sex toys can lead to a positive HPV result. Don’t worry, though, not all HPV can cause cervical cancer. In most cases your body is perfectly capable of getting rid of it without you actually noticing it. It might also stay in your body for some time without causing any problems. If it’s a high-risk type of HPV that stays in your body undiscovered, however, the cells on your cervix can start to change.
How likely am I to develop cervical cancer?
To put it simply: If you have a cervix and have had any kind of sexual contact with a man or a woman, you could get cervical cancer. Why? Because nearly all of the 3000 cases of cervical cancer diagnosed in the UK each year are caused by an infection with high-risk types of HPV. Although everyone can get it, it’s most common among women between 30 and 45 who are sexually active.
Do I have to have a smear test?
Whether you have a smear test or not is completely up to you! No one will force you; it’s your choice if you want to go for a cervical screening. Just always keep in mind that it’s the best way to protect yourself from cervical cancer.
Are there any risks to a smear test?
No, getting a smear test doesn’t come with any real risks at all. You are likely to experience some light bleeding or spotting afterwards but that should subside within a few hours. Ring your GP if it gets stronger or doesn’t go away after a few hours.
So, what happens at your appointment?
During your appointment, a small sample of cells will be taken directly from your cervix for testing. This won’t take long at all; the test itself will take no longer than 5 minutes, and the appointment should be over within 10 minutes (entirely depending on how quick you are at putting your trousers back on 😉). It is usually done by a female nurse or doctor but please don’t worry if your smear test is done by a man. They know exactly what they’re doing down there, promise! And if you’re feeling uncomfortable with a male nurse or doctor doing your smear test, you can always ask for a female instead. Before anything happens, the nurse or doctor will explain in great detail what will happen and answer any questions you might have.
How it's done - a step-by-step guide
1. First things first. You’ll be asked to undress behind a screen from the waist down.
2. The nurse or doctor doing the smear test will then likely ask you lie back on the examination bed with your legs bent, feet together, and knees apart.
3. Once in position, a little tube-shaped tool – called speculum – will be inserted into your vagina. The speculum comes in different sizes, so if it feels uncomfortable, ask for a smaller size!
4. The speculum will then be opened carefully so your cervix is visible.
5. Your nurse or doctor will take a small sample of cells directly from your cervix with a soft brush-like instrument.
6. When you’re all done, the speculum will be removed, and you can get dressed again.
Does it hurt?
No, it absolutely shouldn’t hurt! It might be a little bit uncomfortable because cells have to be scraped off, but it shouldn’t be painful. If you’re experiencing any pain during your exam, let your doctor know. You don’t have to suffer through it!
Is there anything I have to look out for afterwards?
As we have already mentioned, you might experience some spotting or light bleeding for a few hours after your test. That’s very common and nothing to worry about at all, though. If the bleeding doesn’t stop within a few hours, or you experience any heavy bleeding, get in touch with your GP.
What about your results?
Generally, your test results will be sent to you via post and your nurse or doctor will let you know at your appointment when you can expect the letter to arrive. Should your letter take longer than expected, you can always call your GP surgery to check for updates. Don’t worry if your letter doesn’t arrive in time, though, as this is no indication that something is wrong.
What do my results mean?
The letter you receive will explain exactly what your results mean but let’s take a look at the different possibilities.
There is no HPV found in your sample
This means that your risk of developing cervical cancer is very low, and you likely won’t need any further tests to check for abnormal cells. You will likely be invited for another screening in 3-5 years.
HPV is found in your sample
If this is the case, your results letter will tell you exactly what happens next.
- There was HPV found in your sample, but you don’t have any abnormal cells: You will be invited for screening in 1 year, and then again in 2 years. If you still have HPV after 3 years, you may need to have a colposcopy.
- There was HPV found in your sample and you have abnormal cells: If that happens, you’ll likely be asked to have a colposcopy.
In some cases, you might also be asked to come back in 3 months’ time to have another smear test done. This doesn’t mean that anything is wrong. It might just mean that your results were unclear, and your nurse or doctor wants to repeat the test to get a clear result.
What does it mean if your smear test comes back “abnormal”?
Don’t panic! This doesn’t automatically mean that you have cancer. It simply means that there are some abnormal cells on your cervix, some of which could potentially be precancerous. Milder abnormalities are usually far more common than severe ones.
So, what happens if you need a colposcopy?
This is another fairly simple procedure to look at your cervix. It is very similar to a smear test; the only difference is that it’s usually done in hospital. Try not to be worried if your GP surgery refers you to a hospital for a colposcopy and you have to wait a little bit for your appointment. Things are moving rather slowly down there so any existing changes to your cells will likely not get any worse in the meantime. During the colposcopy exam, a doctor will use light and magnification to see your cervix more clearly. In some cases, the doctor might also take a sample of your cervical tissue to check whether the cells are cancerous. This is called a biopsy.