From 19-24 June, it is Cervical Screening Awareness Week. This week aims to highlight the importance of cervical screening and increase the uptake of people attending their appointments.
Perhaps you’ve been invited to attend your first screening, you’ve never attended, or it’s been a while since you did.
Feeling a little unsure and nervous about what to expect is normal. This article will walk you through the process, explain why it’s important, and include some useful tips to make you feel prepared for your screening.
Who needs a screen
If you have a cervix and are between the ages of 25 and 64, you should have a regular cervical screen, or ‘smear test’ as it’s commonly called. It is a free and safe service provided through your GP or sexual health clinic.
If you are 25-49 you should have a cervical screen every 3 years.
If you are 50-64 you should have a cervical screen every 5 years.
How to book
You will get a letter inviting you for your first cervical screen up to six months before you turn 25, and then again, every 3 to 5 years, depending on your age. You can book your appointment as soon as you have received your invitation.
If you received an invitation letter but did not book an appointment, you can still contact your local GP and book now. You can book even if you were invited weeks, months or years ago.
If you never had a letter or can’t remember when your screen is due, contact your GP and they can check if you’re due a screen.
Nobody will be annoyed with you for missing a screen or forgetting when your last one was! But it’s really important, so phone them today to find out.
Why it’s important
A smear test is one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer. The test itself isn’t to check for cancer, it’s to prevent it.
The NHS website details that Cervical screening checks a sample of cells from your cervix for certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV).
These types of HPV can cause abnormal changes to the cells in your cervix and are called “high-risk” types of HPV.
If these types of HPV are found during screening (an HPV-positive result), the sample of cells is then checked for abnormal changes. If abnormal cells are not treated, they may turn into cervical cancer.
HPV is the name for a very common group of viruses. Most people will get some type of HPV during their lives. It is very common and nothing to feel ashamed or embarrassed about.
Even if you have had an HPV vaccination, you still need to book and attend regular cervical screening.
GOV.UK advises that by attending your cervical screening appointment, you can lower your chances of getting cervical cancer. The appointment finds abnormal cells so they can be removed before they become cancerous.
What will happen at your appointment
The test itself takes on average around 1-2 minutes, around the same time it takes for a kettle to boil. Your whole appointment, including talking with your nurse, takes on average 20 minutes in total, and this includes a chat beforehand where you can ask questions.
Here’s a step-by-step of the appointment taken from the NHS website:
- You’ll need to undress, behind a screen, from the waist down. You’ll be given a sheet to put over you.
- The nurse will ask you to lie back on a bed, usually with your legs bent, feet together and knees apart. Sometimes you may need to change position during the test.
- They’ll gently put a smooth, tube-shaped tool (a speculum) into your vagina. A small amount of lubricant may be used. (For those attending who are post-menopausal estrogen cream will be applied). A nurse will open the speculum so they can see your cervix.
- Using a soft brush, they’ll take a small sample of cells from your cervix.
- The nurse will close and remove the speculum and leave you to get dressed.
Useful tips to make the appointment easier for you
It’s normal to feel anxious or embarrassed, but remember that this is a quick, safe, and routine procedure that your nurse will have done so many times before. You don’t need to be embarrassed about what your vagina might look like or rush out for a pre-appointment wax!
There are certain things you can do to make yourself more comfortable. Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has useful tips for your appointment, including:
- Wear a skirt, dress, or long jumper so that you can be clothed during the test, meaning you only have to remove your underwear. You may also bring a shawl or blanket with you, so you feel more covered.
- Did you know that you can ask for a smaller speculum? Speculums come in different sizes, and if you find the standard size too uncomfortable, you can ask for a smaller size.
- By focusing on your breathing, you can help soothe feelings of anxiety. This will help relax your body and give you a distraction. Try breathing in for four seconds and then breathing out for eight.
The UK cervical cancer charity also has a downloadable comfort checklist to help you have a more comfortable cervical screening appointment.
Support for everyone attending their smear test
For more information and support about going for cervical screening, results, and treatment, you can contact visit Jo’s Cervical Trust website which includes a forum, helpline and advice. Or, for more information surrounding Cervical Cancer and education visit the UK Cervical Cancer website.