Cervical Screening Awareness Week

It’s been a while since I have written a women’s health post on Florenec Finds and as it’s Cervical Screening Awareness Week, now seemed like an excellent time to talk about one of those things we all probably dislike doing and might even put off. I’m going to write this in a Q&A style post and I’d love you to both spread the word and get involved if you have any questions – I’ll do my best to answer them throughout the day.

What is a Cervical Smear?
The ‘smear test’ is an examination for women in which cells are taken from the surface of the cervix and examined under the microscope. It is looking for any changes in the cells which may be pre-cancerous and enables early treatment or monitoring. As the cervix is hidden away at the top of the vagina, the test is done using an instrument called a speculum which holds open the vaginal walls for a better view of the cervix.

Who needs one?
All women, (that includes lesbians, nuns, people who have never been sexually active, those who have always used condoms etc etc.) over the age of 25 should have a smear. In normal circumstances it needs repeating every 3 years, but this may change if there is an abnormality. It will never be less frequent until you are over 50, when the tests become 5 yearly and stop at age 65.

Why should I have one?
Smear tests are looking for PRE-cancerous cells – that is cells that are showing signs of changing and that could potentially become cancerous. This is a golden opportunity to prevent cervical cancer ever occurring and potentially save your life.

What if they find a problem?
If abnormal cells are spotted on a smear test (under the microscope – pre-cancerous cells can’t be seen with the naked eye, but other problems can be,) they are separated into different ‘grades’ of severity and the treatment is arranged accordingly. In the most mild cases, it may simply require observation and a repeat smear in 3-12 months. This is because some changes that are seen on smear tests can go back to normal by themselves. Most abnormal findings however require a colposcopy – a test that is often done in hospital where in a similar way to how the smear is first done, the cervix is examined, and a special stain is applied to see if there are any problem cells. They are then sometimes frozen or burned off or cut out. That’s about as pleasant as it sounds but is a small procedure, relatively quick and should solve the problem.

Can I get a smear when I’m pregnant?
No. You can’t have a smear whilst pregnant or for 3 months afterwards as the cervix changes and the results are unreliable. When you’re 3 months post-natal, the cervix has settled down and you can book in. If you are due a smear whilst pregnant, it is perfectly safe to defer it until 3 months after having your baby.

Is there a ‘best’ time to have it?
They say that mid cycle is the best time to have a smear but it really doesn’t matter. If you’re bleeding then the cell sample is often inadequate so avoid your period.

I went to the GP with a female problem and he/she didn’t do a smear. Should they have done?
A smear is not a diagnostic test, just a screening test, so if you are being investigated for a problem it won’t be part of the tests a doctor or nurse does on you. If your symptoms are suggestive of cervical cancer you will be directly referred for a closer look with a colposcopy. You might find however that if you go for another problem that requires a speculum examination and you are due a smear, that the doctor will take the opportunity to get it done at the same time. If you have had a normal smear within the last 3 years, it is very unlikely that you could have a serious cervical problem.

What’s the science behind it?
The reason smear tests are useful is that it takes many years (between 10 and 20,) for cells to change from normal cells into a cancer cell, and they go through many stages on the way. If we can catch them before that, we can offer treatment to prevent the cancer.

Cervical cancer is caused by HPV16 and 18 (2 strains of Human Papilloma Virus or the common wart virus) and it is passed on through sex. This is not the same virus strain that causes genital warts. There are also some rarer forms of cervical cancer that are not related to HPV. Increasingly now smear tests also look for HPV – the virus often clears itself, but in some women it causes changes called CIN (Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia,) which can go on to turn into cervical cancer. HPV infection doesn’t guarantee you will develop pre-cancerous cells or cancer, but it makes the risk much more likely. You may have heard of or received the cervical cancer vaccine – it is actually against HPV.

I think that’s all for now and I suspect I am preaching to the converted. I hope many of you have had your first smear already but knowing how easy it is to forget, (I have done!) move house and not get the invitation, or just put it off, I thought it was worth reminding you all. Once again if there are any questions, just shout. Even if it’s something silly that you never wanted to ask your GP. 😉


More Resources:

Disclaimer: This article was compiled using my knowledge and day to day practice. Although written by a qualified GP, this article does not substitute you attending your own GP and should not be used for individual medical advice. No liability can be accepted for decisions made on the strength of information contained here or elsewhere on Florence Finds.

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20 thoughts on “Cervical Screening Awareness Week

  1. Having worked for the UK’s largest cancer charity, I am a bossy boots about smear tests! I had to have one repeated a few years ago because of an abnormal result – luckily all was well but I’ve never felt more grateful that the test exists.

    We are so, so fortunate to have a screening programme for this – it only takes 30 seconds and doesn’t hurt at all. Do it!

    See, I told you – bossy!

  2. I was at the Drs already this morning so, having read this, I asked if I could have a smear when I was there.

    I was in and out in 5 minutes.

    Painless. Job done. Tick.

      • I should add that when I went in “because I saw a post on a blog about how it was cervical cancer testing week” they were like “is it?”.

        Rubbish. I was expecting a badge or a lolly or something.

  3. I always found it was easy to find a reason to be ‘too busy’ for this just because I was scared but it was always at the back of my mind. We recently moved and when I signed up for the med centre I got sent my invite and hubby wouldn’t let me find an excuse. It only took about 5 mins in total and everything came back fine. When I think how much time I spent worrying about it versus how long it took I feel ridiculous for taking so long to get it done when it could save my life.

  4. I have just recently had one and now have to go back from colposcopy so I am feeling so glad that I went to get it. I do have over 8 weeks to wait for the colposcopy though but I guess the main thing is that at least I am going to get tested further.

    All the comments above are so true, it is not sore and over so quickly. I put mine off, leaving a 4.5 year gap between this one and my last smear and now have some abnormalities so don’t put it off if you are due!

    • I have been guilty of going overdue on mine too – forgetting then being ‘too busy’ to make an appointment. Thanks for the reminder that it’s easy to be complacent. Good luck with the colposcopy. x

  5. Since I moved to France, I have my smear test done once a year by my gynecologist during my yearly check-up. It’s quick and easy and I get the results by post the same week.
    I think this is definitely something we spend way more time worrying about than actually having done as Lucy said!

  6. A good friend of mine went and had her first smear earlier this year, she has had 5 children but due to the change in the NHS changing the age at which a woman starts to go for screen, and being pregnant for most of her 20’s (she admitted she was a bit scared too) she had her first test done at 31 and was diagnosed 5 days later with cervical cancer, I am pleased to say with lots of treatment she is now in remission, her message to all women is simply don’t put it off because you never know what is going on down there. I had a colposcopy myself over 10 years ago and I am now coming to the end of the time where they screen me every year, I will be voluntarily still be going each year to get tested, it’s so important – thank you for this post, it’s a good message for all women!

  7. Such a worthwhile post!! I am always nagging at my sister in law to have hers! She never finds time – it could save your life people!!! xx

  8. Rebecca, this has inspired me to book an appointment and get it done- I have never had one before because I am scared of medical tests in general. Thank you for writing this post and to those commenting for sharing their stories.

  9. I put off having my first smear for 3yrs I kept saying I didn’t need one, I was embarrassed about somebody looking there. Finally a few weeks ago I had it done. I’d convinced myself (due in part to some irregular bleeding) that something was wrong. I went and it was over in a few minutes, I can’t lie I found it really uncomfortable, not painful exactly but really not nice. My results came back clear thankfully and I’ve realised how ridiculous I was. No matter how much I didn’t like it, I’ll never put it off again.

  10. Do all doctors/nurses use the same equipment Rebecca? I was expecting some sort of spatula type affair, but the nurse used a ‘plastic penis’ (in her own words), which was pretty horrible to be honest! Might go elsewhere next time….!

    • Ha! I suspect she was describing the speculum? That’s an, ahem, interesting way of trying to put a patient at ease…

      Some speculums are metal and some are plastic the experience is very similar either way, metal is just colder. The tool used to actually collect the cells is sometimes wooden like an ice lolly stick, and sometimes like a mini plastic ‘broom’. It’s standardised by area though. Most places do liquid cytology now, using the broom which is then snapped off and sent in liquid to the lab for analysis.

  11. I had an abnormal smear a few years ago, a colposcopy, then some treatment where the cells were burnt off. Then had yearly smears for 3 years, all ok in the end and although the treatment wasn’t particularly pleasant, so pleased I got the treatment and all is well now. Please don’t put it off, it really is life saving x

  12. Can I share my favourite smear test story please? When I was growing up our local surgery started screening when you became sexually active rather than 25 like they do now. So, with a sense of duty and foreboding off I toddled to the doctors like the responsible sort of adult I was. What I didn’t expect was to be greeted by the nurse with “Oh I haven’t seen you in years, I treated your mum when she was having you!” And therein lie the emotional perils of growing up in a small town! If I can recover from that you can definitely all cope with a quick swipe around every few years!

  13. Hi Rebecca. Great post! I have a couple of those pesky questions you feel silly asking your GP… I’ve had two abnormal smears followed by colposcopies then loop excisions (once under local and once under general). The last one was a few years ago now. Does the fact that its happened twice mean its more likely to happen again? Also I’m now thinking about starting to try for a family and I’m a little nervous about whether the loops will make things tricky. Are the things you can read about post loop difficulties true?

    For everyone else reading… Having experienced the above I’ve had a lot of smears and can well and truly say that they are absolutely fine and really worth it!!! x

  14. Thank you for the timely reminder. I’d forgotten to book mine, despite receiving a letter. Much appreciated 🙂

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