Today is International Women's Day and it's is all about celebrating women and their achievements. Whilst us women are achieving and thriving more than ever, it's important to take care of ourselves and our health. However, smear test rates are at their lowest for the past two decades! There appear to be many misgivings and much misinformation about the smear test. So many women are perhaps frightened or fearful of getting their smear test done - but we cannot understate the importance of this life-saving examination.
We spoke to Dr Stephanie Ooi (@the_gp_mum) about the importance of getting your smear test done and asked her some common questions that you might have.
What is cervical screening and why is it so important?
The cervical screening programme aims to reduce the number of cases of cervical cancer. Most people will refer to screening as a smear test. Importantly, this test is not a test for cancer itself. It looks for any abnormal changes on the cervix (the neck of the womb). Most abnormalities do not cause a problem but picking them up early means an appropriate management plan can be put in place.
When should I get one?
This depends on your age group. Screening starts at the age of 25 years old.
- 25 - 49 years old - every 3 years
- 50 - 64 years old - every 5 years
- 65+ - only women who have had recent abnormal tests
In general, you should receive an invitation letter however if you think you might be due for one then please check with your GP surgery. If you are due for a smear test but are pregnant then this can usually be deferred until after pregnancy. However, if you have had a recent abnormal smear test then you may still need to be tested. In addition, there are certain situations where you may not need one e.g. if you have had surgery to remove the womb and cervix. It's best to speak to your practice nurse if you are at all unsure. Alternatively, the NHS website and Jo's Cervical Cancer trust also have plenty of accurate information about smear tests.
How do you prepare for a cervical screening/smear test?
What should I expect at a smear test?
It should be a relatively quick process. Many health professionals can do the test depending on where you go. Make sure to request a female if you prefer.
You will be asked to remove all clothing from the waist down and pop yourself on the examination couch, lying down. The best position is to put your feet together, bend your knees then let each knee go out to each side.
An instrument called a speculum is then inserted into the vagina. If you haven't seen one before, it's a bit like a duck's beak! It is inserted an opened slightly to help locate the cervix. A small brush is then used to take a sample by rotating it over the cervix. This can feel a bit strange and you might experience a very small amount of bleeding after because of this contact.
And that's it! The brush is immersed into a liquid filled pot and shaken several times so the cells are released into the pot. This is sent to the lab and you should hear about results in 2 weeks.
Is a smear test painful?
Some women have no pain, others do feel it is painful so it really depends. However, it is a temporary sensation so I really encourage women to not put it off.
Some tips that might help:
- Trying to relax (easier said than done I know!). The walls of the vagina has a muscular layer so if you are tense it will be harder to insert the speculum. I usually ask women to focus on the inner parts of their thighs and keep these relaxed.
- Plenty of deep breathing can help to calm you if you're feeling nervous. I have had women singing, talking about a random subject, closing their eyes...do whatever works for you!
If you are anxious then I would suggest booking in to see someone just to talk about it. Best to see the person who will be doing it so they are aware of how you feel. Always better to talk it through than miss this important test.
If you'd like to read further on this topic, Dr Stephanie Ooi has also written more information about what results mean and a patient journey over on her Instagram page so please have a look if this interests you!