Cervical cancer is the 2nd most common cancer in women under 35. 2600 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year and 690 women die from it every year (that’s 2 a day). But we can help prevent it with screening.
On Tuesday, March 5th 2019, Public Health England launched their first Cervical Screening campaign so I thought it would be a good opportunity to answer some of the FAQ’s I received about cervical screening.
What causes cervical cancer?
Almost all cases of cervical cancer (99.7%) are caused by infections with certain types of human papullomavirus (HPV). There are over 100 different types of HPV. Around 13 types of HPC have been linked to cervical cancer; these are known as ‘high-risk’ types of HPV. Of the high-risk types, HPV 16 and 17 are responsible for causing over 70% of cervical cancers in the UK. It is contracted through any skin-to-skin contact, including genital-genital contact, anal, vaginal, and oral sex.
What is the cervical screening test and what does it look for?
This is a test to check for abnormal cells or HPV on the cervix (the bit that connects the womb to the vagina). It is important to note that it isn’t a test for cancer, it’s a test to detect any changes in cells of the cervix – therefore preventing cancer before it starts.
Who can have cervical screening?
In the UK, you are automatically invited for cervical screening if you are:
- between the ages of 25 to 64
- registered as female with a GP surgery
You are invited:
- every 3 years between the age of 25 and 49
- every 5 years between the age of 50 and 64
How effective is the screening programme?
The NHS Cervical Screening Programme saves an estimates 5,000 lives a year.
However, coverage is as a 20-year low. Figures published by NHS Digital show that, at 31st March 2018, the percentage of eligible women (aged 25 to 64) screened adequately was 71.4%.
“My friend said it was painful”
OK it should NOT be painful but it can feel a little odd and some find it uncomfortable, just because that part of your body is very sensitive. The most uncomfortable part is the speculum (the instrument that opens your vagina) and then we use a small brush with soft bristles to collect cervical cells. It takes only a few seconds.
“I’m scared I will get results telling me I have cancer”
Cervical screening checks the health of the cervix and can prevent potentially harmful cells from developing; screening can therefore stop cancer before it starts. It’s not a test for cancer.
“I just don’t have time to have mine”
Cervical screening lasts about 5 minutes, and you only have to fo once over 3 or 5 years depending on your age. It’s 5 minutes that could save your life. Squeeze it in on your lunch break.
“I feel embarrassed about having the test”
This is easier said than done but never feel embarrassed about your body, especially in the doctor or nurses room. The only thing we are focused on is the job at hand – I promise we don’t don’t notice unshaven legs or odd socks. We know to make small talk if you’re feeling a little awkward.
p.s It’s no different to having a wax (and less painful!)
“If I’ve had the HPV vaccine, do I still need to go for a cervical screening when invited?”
Yes! If you have had the HPV vaccine you are protected against 70% of cancer causing HPC infections, however you are absolutely not fully protected. Attending smear tests is just as important if you have been vaccinated or not as it will detect abnormalities caused by other types of HPV.
Can you get an HPV infection if you use condoms?
Wearing condoms will reduce your risk of getting the virus. However, HPV can live on the skin in and around the whole genital area, which will not be covered by a condom, so it can be transmitted through sexual contact of any touching or genital-to-genital contact, as well as oral, vaginal, and anal sex.
Do lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) women need to have screening?
Sometimes people are told not to have a smear test due to the common misconception that LGB women can’t get HPv. HPV is a really common virus that 80% of us will get at one point in our lives. It can be passed on between women, even if neither of them has ever had sexual contact with a man. This is because HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact in the genital area, which can include touching, sharing sex toys, oral sex, and penetrative sex.
Why don’t they offer screening to under 25?
If you’re under 25 you will not be invited for cervical screening until you’re 25 because:
- cervical cancer is very rare in people under 25
- it might lead to having treatment you do not need
- abnormal cell changes often go back to normal in younger women
I’ve missed my appointment, what do I do?
If you’re overdue, book an appointment at your GP practice now. Go to nhs.uk/cervicalscreening
Please book your appointment if you’ve missed your last one and please please pass the message on to your friends/mum/sister/cousin etc. And direct them here for more information!
feature image: Imani Clovis via Unsplash