Nobody likes going for a cervical smear test. Having to lay legs akimbo and partially undressed isn’t relaxing. But it only takes minutes, and can save your life.
Recent NHS figures reveal that a large number of women could be putting themselves at risk of cervical cancer because they’re failing to go along to their GP for regular smear tests.
Why you should take smear tests seriously
The English cervical screening programme is at its lowest level for 20 years, with more than 1.2million women aged 25 to 64 missing out on a smear test in 2016/17.
As a result of women ignoring the need for regular checks, rates of the disease are expected to go up by nearly 40% in the next 20 years.
What is putting women off smear tests?
Awareness of the importance of a smear test to identify cells that might become cancerous, was highlighted by the death of reality TV star Jade Goody, who died of cervical cancer in 2009. As a result the number of women going for regular checks peaked, but the impact of her tragic story has since faded, and numbers have fallen.
While it can be embarrassing to undergo something as intimate as a smear test, health chiefs at Public Health England believe it’s not awkwardness, fear or a lack of understanding that is putting women off, but a shortage of convenient appointments.
Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, believes that GP services have to fit in with our more fluid lifestyles.
‘We are leading busier, more mobile lives therefore these statistics must surely serve as a call to action to make the screening programme more accessible, again, something we have been saying for years,’ he stated.
Public Health England said it is ‘encouraging GPs to consider offering a variety of appointments earlier in the morning and evening, making it easier for women to attend at a time that suits them’.
Unfortunately in an already overstretched NHS, not all GP surgeries are able to offer appointments outside of the normal working day.
This is prompting more women to seek out appointments at private clinics, such as Twenty-five Harley Street, where experienced GPs can see patients at same day appointments, from 8.30am until 8.00pm. Out of hours appointments are also available.
Why smear tests are vital
There are usually no signs in the earlier stages of cervical cancer, which is why it’s so vital to have regular smear tests.
Cervical cancer is the most common cause of cancer under the age of 35. Every year around 3,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in Britain, and the disease kills roughly 900.
The NHS recommends women have smear tests every three years from the age of 25, and more frequently if you have abnormal cells, or concerns.
According to the recent NHS Digital statistics, it’s younger women who are ignoring the call for regular check-ups the most, with just 62.1 per cent attending, among the youngest group of 25 to 29-year-olds.
What causes cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is overwhelmingly caused by a very common virus known as HPV (human papilloma virus) that is transmitted through sexual contact.
Infection with the virus can trigger an immune system response called dyskaryosis, which can cause cells around the cervix to alter.
The good news is, our bodies are usually quite efficient at fighting off HPV infections. However, in some cases the HPV overrides the immune system causing cell changes that may lead to cervical cancer. This why cervical cancer screening is vital – it allows the gynaecologists to remove abnormal cervical cells at an early enough stage, before they become cancerous.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
- Spotting or bleeding in between your usual period or after having sex
- Bleeding after the menopause has occurred
- An unpleasant-smelling vaginal discharge
- Feeling pain during sexual intercourse and an ache in the lower back or pelvis
Best doctors for smear tests
- Mr Francis Gardner is Consultant Gynaecologist and Clinical Director of Gynaecology at Queen Alexandra Hospital Portsmouth
- Miss Tania Adib is a Consultant Gynaecologist at Queen’s Hospital, where she is the Lead Clinician for Colposcopy
- Mr Pandelis Athanasias is a Consultant Obstetrician & Gynaecologist at St Helier Hospital and the Lead Clinician for Early Pregnancy and Acute Gynaecology
What happens during a smear test
It's not necessary to completely undress for a smear test. You just need the lower part of your body to be undressed. Your doctor will gently slide a speculum into the vagina, and the smear will be taken from the cervix. Smear tests involve taking a sample of cells from the neck of the womb.
On the NHS, women aged between 25 and 49 are invited for screening every three years, and when they are aged 50 to 64, every five years. However, you can have convenience and peace of mind anytime, by going to see a private gynaecologist or GP.
The national screening programme has been credited with slashing cervical cancer rates by 44 per cent since the 1970s.
What does an abnormal smear mean?
Don’t panic if you are told there is a problem with the result. There may be an issue with the test its self. There are a variety of reasons for this, including an inadequate sample, menstrual period or infection. The test will simply be repeated a few months later.
Less than one in ten women will have an abnormal result after a smear. It means that there are some changes to the cells on the cervix.
How are abnormal cells treated?
You will usually be referred for a colposcopy if your doctor has concerns about your smear.
A specialist microscope called a hysteroscope is used to check for any signs of cell changes with a high-powered microscope. At Twenty-five Harley Street, we use DYSIS technology for colposcopy - Dynamic Spectral Imaging – has been shown to provide the most accurate and sensitive measurement when it comes to discovering cervical cell changes
LLETZ can be used to treat abnormal cells, which stands for large loop excision of the transformation zone. The procedure can often be carried out during a colposcopy, and cuts the tissue and seals the wound at the same time. Around 40% of women won’t require further treatment, such as laser treatment.
If cancer is detected, you’ll be referred on to a hospital for early treatment.