What is cervical screening?
- Cervical screening is not a test for diagnosing cervical cancer. It is a test to check the health of the cervix, which is the lower part of the womb (often called the neck of the womb).
- For many women the test results show that everything is fine.
- But for one in 20 women, the test shows changes in cells that can be caused by many things.
- Most of these changes will not lead to cervical cancer.
Why do I need cervical screening?
Cervical cancer can often be prevented. The signs that it may develop can be spotted early on so it can be stopped before it even gets started. Around 900 women die of cervical cancer in England each year. However, many of those who develop it have not been screened regularly. Not going for cervical screening is one of the biggest risk factors for developing cervical cancer. Cancer Research UK scientists estimate that up to 4,500 lives will be saved each year in England by cervical screening.
Should all women have the test?
We offer the test to all women aged between 25 and 64 but cervical cancer is more common if you:
- First had sex at an early age;
- Have had several sexual partners or have had a sexual partner who has had several other partners; or
- Take immunosuppressant drugs (for example, after an organ transplant).
If you have passed the menopause, you still need to be tested to check that your cervix is healthy. Ask your doctor for advice if you:
- Have had a hysterectomy;
- Are over 65;
- Have never had sex with a man or woman; or
- You are not sure whether you still need to be tested.
What is the NHS Cervical Screening Programme?
The programmed makes sure that if you are aged between 25 and 64, you will automatically receive an invitation. We will get your name from your doctor’s list. This means it is important that your doctor always has your correct name and address.
After your first cervical screen, you will receive invitations every 3 years between the ages of 25 and 49. You will then be invited every 5 years between the ages of 50 and 64.
Who will carry out my test?
A doctor or nurse will carry out your test. If you prefer a female member of staff, or would like someone with you, please ask when you make your appointment.
Will I have to undress?
We will ask you to undress from the waist down, but if you wear a full skirt you will not have to remove it.
What happens during the test?
The doctor or nurse will ask you to lie down on a couch. They will then gently put a small instrument, called a speculum, into your vagina to hold it open. Then, they will wipe a small brush-like device over the cervix to pick up some cells. They will transfer these cells into a small container of liquid, and send it away for the cells to be transferred onto a slide and examined under a microscope. The test takes just a few minutes.
Does the test hurt?
You might experience some discomfort or pain – try to relax by taking slow, deep breaths as it may hurt more it you are tense. If it is painful, tell the doctor or nurse straight away as they may be able to reduce your discomfort.
Is there anything I should do before the test?
You cannot be tested during your period so make sure you get an appointment before or after your period is due. The best time is in the middle of your cycle.
Can I have sex before the test?
If you use a spermicide, a barrier method of contraception or a lubricant jelly, you should not use these for 24 hours before the test as the chemicals they contain may affect the test.
When do I get my results?
When you have the test, the doctor or nurse will tell you how, where and approximately when you will get your results. Make sure you have received this information before you leave the surgery or clinic.
How reliable is cervical screening?
Early detection and treatment can prevent around 75% of cancers developing but, like other screening tests, it is not perfect. It may not always detect early cell changes that may lead to cancer. Abnormal cells on your slide may not be recognised because:
- Sometimes they do not look much different from normal cells;
- There may be very few abnormal cells on the slide; or
- The person reading your slide may miss the abnormality (this happens occasionally, no matter how experienced the reader is).
About one in 20 tests have to be taken again because:
- You may have an infection which needs treating before a clear slide can be made;
- The cervical cells on your slide may have been hidden by blood or mucus;
- There may not have been enough cervical cells on your slide to give an accurate assessment.
- Your sample may not have been properly prepared; or
- The slide may have been broken.
If you have any unusual symptoms, such as bleeding after sex or between periods, you should see your doctor.
What does it mean if I am called back?
Only very rarely does it mean that you have cancer. It might simply mean that your sample did not show up clearly and that we need to take another test. This is called an ‘unsatisfactory result’.
On the other hand, your result could identify some small changes in the cells of the cervix. If abnormal changes (known as dyskaryosis) are detected, you will have what is called an ‘abnormal result’. This is not cancer. However, sometimes cancer will be found when an abnormal test is investigated further.
Can anything be done about abnormal changes?
Yes. Your doctor or nurse will explain what needs to be done. They may simply ask you to come back for more cervical screening tests, because the abnormal cells may return to normal by themselves. However, they may ask you to go to hospital for a closer examination which is called ‘colposcopy’. Treatment, if needed, is a minor procedure and is usually done in an outpatient clinic. This means you will not have to stay overnight.
Can cervical screening prevent cancer?
Regular cervical screening is the best way to detect changes to the cervix early. Early detection and treatment can prevent cancer developing in around 75% of cases.
What happens to my sample once it has been looked at?
The laboratory that looks at your sample will keep it for at least 10 years. They can then compare your latest result with the ones you have had before. This is to make sure that you get any treatment you may need. They may review all screening records, including your sample, as part of our aim to offer a quality of service and to help increase the expertise of specialist staff. This means that staff who work elsewhere in the health service will need to see your records.