Cervical screening can be a topic of discomfort or embarrassment for many women and people with a cervix. But the importance of the more commonly known ‘smear test’ is tenfold. There are many misconceptions and myths that can lead to missed invitations, which the government and health organisations alike have been addressing through public campaigns.
According to Cancer Research UK, there are around 3,200 new cases every year, yet 99.8% of cervical cancer deaths could be prevented.1 In England, 69.9% of eligible individuals aged 25 to 64 were adequately screened in 2021-22, a 0.3% decrease on the previous year, when coverage was 70.2%.2
Jane Chalmers, Cancer Care nurse at AXA Health, explores why cervical screenings are so important and addresses what can deter some people from attending.
What is the test for?
There are many reasons why women and people with a cervix may not attend a screening, but one big misconception is that the test is for cancer - and this is not the case.
It’s a test to help prevent cancer. During the screening a small sample of cells will be taken from your cervix and tested for the human papillomavirus (HPV) which can cause changes to the cells of your cervix. These are called "high risk" types of HPV.
If these types of HPV are not found – you do not 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.
Finding these changes early means they can be monitored or treated, so they don’t get a chance to progress to cervical cancer.3
To put things into perspective, on average, out of every 100 people who have a cervical screening:
- 87 will have a negative HPV result,
- 13 people will have a positive HPV result,
- 9 will be invited for another screening in 12 months’ time and
- 4 will be referred to have a colposcopy (a procedure involving internal examination) by referral to a gynaecologist.4
We know that embarrassment and fear can cause many to put off going for a test, but it’s important you know what it’s for and what the results mean, so you can make your decision about going, armed with all the information you need.