Here’s why you shouldn’t fear the smear, with tips for if you’re feeling anxious & a BBC Breakfast GP shares her experiences
What is cervical screening?
Often called a smear test, cervical screening is a test that checks the health of your cervix (the opening to your womb from your vagina) to help prevent cancer.
All women and people with a cervix aged 25 to 64 years should go for a regular cervical screening. You’ll be invited by letter to make an appointment.
The test is usually done by a female nurse or doctor.
What happens during cervical screening?
During your screening appointment, a small sample of cells will be taken from your cervix. The test itself should take less than five minutes. The whole appointment should take about 10 minutes.
The sample will be checked for certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) that can cause changes to the cells of your cervix. These are called "high risk" types of HPV.
If these types of HPV aren’t found, you don’t need any further tests.
If these types of HPV are found, the sample is then checked for any changes in the cells of your cervix. These can then be treated before they get a chance to turn into cervical cancer.
You'll receive your results by letter, usually in about two weeks. The letter will also explain what happens next.
Find out more about what happens during a cervical screening appointment.
Why are cervical screenings important?
Cervical screening is one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer. Finding “high risk” HPV early means you can be monitored for abnormal cell changes, and any abnormal changes can be treated before they get a chance to turn into cervical cancer.
Contact your GP surgery to make an appointment as soon as you get your letter, and remember, if you’ve missed your last cervical screening you don’t need to wait for another letter to book an appointment.
If you're worried about symptoms of cervical cancer, such as:
• Bleeding between periods, during or after sex, or after you’ve been through the menopause
• Unusual vaginal discharge
Don’t wait for your next cervical screening appointment, see your GP.
Who is at risk of cervical cancer?
If you have a cervix and have had any kind of sexual contact with a man or a woman, you could get cervical cancer. This is because nearly all cervical cancers are caused by infection with “high risk” types of HPV.
You can get HPV through:
• Vaginal, anal or oral sex
• Any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area
• Sharing sex toys
You’re still at risk of cervical cancer if you’ve had the HPV vaccine as it doesn’t protect against all types of HPV.
What should I do if I’m feeling anxious about cervical screening?
It’s normal to feel anxious before a cervical screening appointment, particularly if it’s your first one. Don’t hesitate to speak to your nurse or GP if you have any questions about cervical screening.
You may want to try these ways to help you feel more comfortable for your appointment:
• Wear a skirt or dress that you can easily lift up so you don’t have to worry about getting undressed from the waist down
• Bring someone with you for support
• Bring something to listen to or read during the test to distract you
• Try breathing exercises to help you relax
• Ask the nurse or doctor to use a smaller speculum
• Ask the nurse or doctor if you can lie in a different position if you’re uncomfortable
• Ask to stop the test at any time if you need to
• Communicate with the nurse or doctor so they can support you throughout the test
If you’re worried about your test, please let the nurse or doctor know so that they can determine what kind of support you might need.
Try not to let your nerves cloud how important it is to attend your cervical screening appointment.
What does a GP have to say about cervical screening?
BBC Breakfast GP, Dr Rachel Ward (@drrachelwardgp on Instagram), shares her experiences of cervical screening, from being on the bed to doing the tests herself.
“Like most women, I remember feeling pretty anxious about going for a smear for the first time,” says Dr Ward. “I’d never needed an intimate examination before and never had a speculum. However, I knew that this was something that was really important so booked the appointment as soon as invited.”
“I came away from the first appointment wondering why I’d been worried at all. The practice nurse was incredibly kind and made me feel much more relaxed, talking me through each step and taking time to make sure I felt comfortable,” assures Dr Ward. “I did feel slightly embarrassed, but it was very clear that the nurse had done this procedure many times before and it was just part of her normal day, which definitely helped.”
“I was also surprised how quick the procedure was – it took me longer to get dressed afterwards than for the actual smear to be done,” adds Dr Ward.
“Since that time, I have no concerns at all about going for a smear. I’d say I worry more about having a bikini wax in fact! I appreciate the importance of it and now I perform smears myself,” says Dr Ward. “As a GP, I understand that it’s just a normal part of our job. Whatever shape, size etc. that you are, we’ve seen it all before and it genuinely doesn’t faze us.”
“Like all cancers, early detection is the key when it comes to getting a good outcome,” states Dr Ward. “A smear picks up pre-cancerous cells and these can be treated before they become cancer. Smears also identify if you have a “high risk” HPV virus which increases the risk of developing cervical cancer and, if this is the case, you can be monitored more frequently to allow for the early detection of any abnormal cells.”
Talk to your nurse or GP if you have any questions or concerns about cervical screening. If you’re experiencing any symptoms of cervical cancer, visit your GP as soon as possible.
While cervical screening is a choice, it’s one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer. Don’t let “smear fear” stop you from booking an appointment.