Just last month during Prime Minister’s Questions, Theresa May spoke openly and directly about her own experiences of having a smear test in response to a question about cervical screening. Labour MP Julie Elliot asked the Prime Minister whether she would look at making smear tests available on the NHS for women under 25.
In response Theresa May agreed the government would look into it and then spoke honestly and openly about the importance of smear tests as well as her own experience with the procedure. She said “It’s so important for women’s health, so I first of all want to encourage women to take the smear test. Have that test…I know it is not a comfortable thing to do because I have it as others do.” The importance of hearing about women’s issues being discussed frankly and opening in parliament cannot be overlooked.
This comes at a moment in time when 1 in 4 women skip their cervical screening, with this number increasing to 1 in 3 among those aged 25 to 29 and to half in some more deprived regions of the UK.
A cervical screening test (previously known as a smear test) isn’t a test for cancer but rather it is a method of detecting abnormal cells on the cervix.
Most women’s test results show that everything is normal, but for around 1 in 20 women the test shows some abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. Most of these changes won’t lead to cervical cancer and the cells may go back to normal on their own. But in some cases, the abnormal cells need to be removed so they can’t become cancerous.
Since the NHS Cervical Screening Programme was introduced in the 1980s the number of cervical cancer cases has decreased by about 7% each year. However, around 3,000 cases of cervical cancer are still diagnosed each year in the UK and it is possible for sexually active women of all ages to develop cervical cancer.
All women aged between 25 and 64 who are registered with a GP are invited for free cervical screening every 3-5 years dependant on age.
Although it is clear how important smear tests are there is a huge proportion of UK women eligible for the test who aren’t attending them.
Embarrassment and misunderstanding are seen to be key factors in preventing women from attending these potentially life saving tests.
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust did a survey of more than 2,000 UK women and found that embarrassment about body shape was a barrier to attendance for between a third and half of women; and around 35% said they wouldn’t go if they hadn’t shaved or waxed their bikini area.
The survey’s findings also highlighted a worrying lack of understanding surrounding smear tests.
The survey found that 61% of women aged 25 to 35 were unaware that they were in the highest-risk group for cervical cancer, 37% thought that screening did not reduce your risk of disease, and worryingly a quarter believed that they were not at risk because they were healthy.
The results of this survey are extremely worrying and it is clear some of the anxieties women feel about cervical screening needs to be addressed.
If you are concerned about cervical screening here is some useful information to put your mind at ease.
Cervical Screening is a quick procedure.
Screening is usually carried out by the practice nurse at your GP clinic. (You can ask to have a female doctor or nurse.) It usually only takes around 5 minutes to carry out.
- You’ll be asked to undress from the waist down and lie on a couch. If you’re wearing a loose skirt you can usually remain fully dressed and just remove your underwear.
- The doctor or nurse will gently put an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. This holds the walls of the vagina open so the cervix can be seen.
- A small soft brush will be used to gently collect some cells from the surface of your cervix.
- The cell sample is then sent off to a laboratory for analysis and you should receive the result within 2 weeks.
Some women find the procedure a bit uncomfortable or embarrassing, but for most women it isn’t painful.
Nurses are professionals who perform millions of these tests every year – there’s no need to be embarrassed.
You are more than welcome to bring a friend or partner along if it makes you feel more comfortable.
Finally remember that being screened regularly means any abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix can be identified at an early stage and, if necessary, treated to stop cancer from even developing.
Prevention is always better than cure so don’t ignore or put off getting your cervical screening as it could save your life.
Take a look at the NHS page for more information: