Good morning and happy hump day! For those that don’t already know, this is Cervical Cancer Prevention Week in the UK. The week aims to raise awareness of cervical cancer and the importance of smear tests. I am rather passionate about women taking up the offer of their smear tests as feel prevention is always better than cure. My mum is a smear test screener (she looks at them down the microscope and checks the cells) so have learnt a lot about the subject from her.
What Is A Smear Test?
A smear test is offered free by the NHS every three years to women between the ages of 25 and 49 and every five years from the age of 50 and 64. You will receive a letter from your GP inviting you to make an appointment for your smear test when it is due. The appointment will take about fifteen minutes, however, the procedure is over in under five minutes.
When you arrive the nurse will ask you some basic information and also about your periods – when your last one was, if you have had any irregular bleeding etc. You will be told about the procedure and asked to sign a consent form. You will then be asked to go behind a curtain and undress from the waist down, and then lay on the bed.
The nurse will then join you and ask you to bend your legs and keeping your feet together, lower your knees towards the bed. If, like me, you have mobility issues such as arthritis, please let the nurse know. They are always very helpful and accommodating with me!
The picture above on the left is the speculum. They are either made of plastic or metal ad are used to open up your vaginal canal. This isn’t generally uncomfortable unless you are very tense. It can be a bit cold, but a kind nurse will normally warm a metal one under the tap before using it!
The nurse will try and ‘visualise’ the cervix – that is, have a look and see if they can see any abnormalities in the first instance. Then will then use a small brush, and wipe it around the cervix to collect the cells. This will be popped into a test tube and sent to the hospital to be screened. The nurse will then remove the speculum and you will be able to get dressed.
The brush which has your cervical cells on will be sent to the hospital where it will be screened. The idea of a smear test is not to detect cancer, although it will do if it is present. A smear test is designed to identify changes in the cells in your cervix which could develop into cancer, therefore a preventative measure.
HPV screening is coming in in the UK and in some areas your smear will be initially checked for the HPV virus. If that isn’t present, you will be sent a negative result and asked to return in three/five years. If the HPV virus is present, your cells will be put onto a slide and sent to screeners who will look at it through a microscope and check for abnormalities.
There are three levels of abnormal cells that can detected before it turns into cancer, and this is the aim of the program – to detect these changes and treat before it gets that severe. Depending on the level of these cells will depend on what treatment needs doing and you may be invited for a smear test sooner than your usual recall time to ensure treatment is successful. You will be contacted by your doctors surgery in the event of an abnormal result.
“I had my first smear aged 25 and had stage 3 pre cancerous cells, basically the next step was cancer. I had them removed and had several colnoscopies which involved a camera up the foof but on my last one got the all clear.. They are so important”
COLPOSCOPY – A colposcopy is a simple procedure used to look at the cervix, the lower part of the womb at the top of the vagina. It’s often done if cervical screening finds abnormal cells in your cervix.
Facts & Figures
TWO WOMEN LOSE THEIR LIVES TO CERVICAL CANCER EVERY WEEK IN THE UK
9 WOMEN ARE DIAGNOSED WITH CERVICAL CANCER IN THE UK EVERY WEEK
I posted a series of polls and posed questions on my Instagram about women’s uptake and experiences of smear tests and the HPV vaccine.
Statistics suggest that 4 in 5 women currently have their smear test when it is offered. The women who answered my survey were slightly above this rate which is encouraging, although there was still 18% of women who hadn’t had one in the previous three years.
“Never had one! I’m scared if I am honest”
75% OF CERVICAL CANCER DIAGNOSIS CAN BE PREVENTED WITH CERVICAL SCREENING (SMEAR TESTS)
The latest government statistics suggest that 83.9% of teenage girls in year 9 take up both doses of the HPV vaccine. This national statistic is higher than the results from my poll, in which 75% of people offered the vaccine had taken up the offer.
“I always have my smear. The NHS don’t offer anything free that isn’t necessary. Also, all women should have them as a basic form of self care”
The HPV Vaccine
HPV – Human Papillomavirus
HPV is a virus that around 80% of us will have at some point. It is passed through skin to skin contact, and in most cases our immune system will get rid of it.
There are over 200 different types of HPV, around 40 of which affect the genital regions of men and women. Of these, around 13 are linked to cancer and known as high risk. HPV can lie dormant in your system for years so you may not know who you caught it from or when you caught it.
The HPV vaccine is now offered to teenage girls in the UK. It helps protect against two strains of the high risk HPV virus which can cause cancer, and two strains of the HPV virus which can cause genital warts.
Does a smear test hurt?
Not usually! It can be a little bit uncomfortable, but should not be painful. Please alert the nurse if you do encounter a high level of pain while having the test as soon as you can. You may experience a little bleeding after the test, I generally wear a panty liner just in case.
“It made me bleed. Was painful but not too much that it put me off. Peace of mind knowing”
What symptoms should I see a GP about?
Symptoms including bleeding after sex and between periods should always be reported to a doctor. They may decide to do a smear test before you are due, just in case.
I had the HPV vaccine and still got HPV. What is the point?
The HPV vaccine currently only protects against two of the high risk HPV strains and two other strains of HPV. Being vaccinated against some of these strains is definitely better than none at all, and scientists are working on the other strains to offer better protection for women.
I am so embarrassed, what can I do?
Remember that nurses are trained to do these tests, and do multiple ones of them a week. For them it is very normal and routine. Explaining to the nurse that you are worried/embarrassed can definitely help, and they will be able to reassure you.
When is the best time to book my smear test?
You should aim to book your smear test for around two weeks after the start of your period, mid cycle. However, a smear test can be booked at any time of the month.
I had her HPV vaccine, does that mean I don’t need a smear test?
YOU STILL NEED A SMEAR TEST EVEN IF YOU HAVE HAD THE HPV VACCINE. This information does not seem to be getting out there,so any girls think they no longer need a smear test after having the vaccine. However, as explained, the vaccine currently only covers two of the 13 high risk HPV strains, so smear tests are still very important.
I have had a fistula and seton in place, and am worried it will hurt more?
This was a question raised on my Instagram stories following my polls. I am not sure of the answer to this but wanted to say – it is still vital to have your smear test so speak to your practice/IBD nurse who will be able to give you more information.
Smear For Smear Campaign (Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust)
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is the only UK charity dedicated to women, their families and friends affected by cervical cancer and cervical abnormalities. They aim to support, raise awareness and provide information.
The Smear for Smear Campaign this week will see women all over social media posting pictures with their lipstick smeared. You can join in and don’t forget o include the hashtags #smearforsmear and #ccpw
I want to thank Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust for the great information available on their website. I have also been sent some fantastic leaflets through the post, and am happy to send some on to anybody who would like to read or who has a method of distributing it, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
When did you last have a smear test? I would love to hear about your experiences, feel free to comment below of you have any advice or questions and I will endeavour to reply to everyone.