The importance of regular smears cannot be overestimated – having a smear can potentially save your life. In the UK, approximately nine cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed every day. A smear is a cervical screening test which can detect abnormal cells on your cervix. These abnormal cells have the potential to lead to cancer if left untreated. A smear test is the best way to identify any abnormalities. Women’s health charity, Wellbeing of Women, spoke to Dr Fiona McCarthy, Consultant Medical Oncologist, ahead of cervical cancer prevention week, and asked all the question you wanted to know about smear tests.
Do I need a smear?
Women between the ages of 25 to 49 years should have a smear test every 3 years. For women aged 50-64, smear tests should be performed every 5 years. Smear tests are available on the NHS and you will usually receive a letter reminding you when you require one. However, if you have not had a smear or are unable to remember when you last had one, please contact your GP.
What happens during the smear test?
When you attend your appointment for your smear, you will be asked to take off your underwear, lie on the treatment couch and you will be given a sheet to cover your lower half. The practice nurse will usually ask you to bend your knees (keeping your ankles together) and then to bring your heels to touch your bottom-You will then be asked to spread your knees apart whilst keeping your ankles together. The reason for this positioning is that it provides the best access to the cervix for the person performing the smear. The practice nurse/doctor doing the smear will then carefully introduce an instrument called a speculum into the vagina in order to get a better look at the cervix. This should not hurt but some women describe it as uncomfortable. If this is the case, taking some slow deep breaths can help relax your muscles and make the procedure less uncomfortable. Using a soft brush, the practice nurse or doctor will gently scrape the surface of the cervix-This ensures cells from the cervix are collected. The brush will then be placed into a small sample pot to send to the laboratory to be analysed. The speculum will then be removed and you will be able to get dressed.
Will it hurt?
Smears are usually performed at your GP practice by the practice nurse. Smears should not hurt per se but most women describe them as feeling a little uncomfortable. If you do experience pain during the procedure, then tell the person doing it. Please don’t put on a brave face and be in discomfort. If you are nervous about having a smear, then you should tell the practice nurse when you arrive at your appointment as they do these every day and often have tricks and tips to help you relax during the procedure. They may also be able to book you a longer appointment so you don’t feel rushed.
I am nervous about my smear and I feel embarrassed, what should I do?
Importantly, don’t be embarrassed about feeling embarrassed. It really is not unusual to feel like this. Doctors and nurses will not take it personally if you would prefer to have a female nurse or doctor do the smear. It is best to mention this when you ring up to book your appointment. There’s no need to worry they will get this request happens all the time. That way, you can be booked in with the right person and avoid any unnecessary stress and embarrassment on the day.
What does it mean if I have abnormal changes?
Your smear result should be available within two to six weeks. If you get a letter saying your result is abnormal, firstly don’t panic! Approximately one in 20 smears will detect abnormal cells and this does NOT mean you have cancer. These changes just need to be investigated as, if they are ignored, there is a risk that they may develop into cervical cancer in the future. If you have an abnormal result, you may be referred to a specialist clinic called a colposcopy clinic where a doctor or a specialist nurse can take a sample of the abnormal cells to examine them more closely.
Dr Fiona McCarthy, Consultant Medical Oncologist courtesy of Wellbeing of Women