Ahead of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week 23rd to the 29th January 2023, Dr Sam Wild, Women’s Health Clinical Lead at Bupa Health Clinics, shares why it’s so important to attend regular cervical screenings, what happens at them and self-help tips for easing any worries you may have about the procedure.
Why is it so important to attend your cervical screening?
Cervical screening is important because it may help to prevent cervical cancer – especially as it can be symptomless in the early stages. Commonly known as smear tests, cervical screening involves collecting a sample of cells from your cervix (the neck of your womb) to check whether they contain a virus called the human papilloma virus (HPV).
HPV is a common virus that most people get at some point in their lives; however, we often don’t know that we’ve got it, as our body usually fights it off by itself. However, if your test finds HPV, your sample will be tested further to check for changes within your cells. If any abnormal changes are identified, they’ll either be monitored or treated to reduce the risk of them developing into cancer in the future.
Even if you’ve had the HPV vaccine, it’s still important to attend your cervical screenings as it only protects you against two types of HPV most commonly linked with cancer.
What happens at a cervical screening?
- The NHS has its own national screening programme where it invites people fitting the following credentials for a test:
Anyone aged between 25 and 64
- All those who have a cervix
However, you can also get a cervical screening at other clinics – including family planning, sexual health and private clinics.
A nurse or doctor will call you into a private and secure room and ask to remove the clothes from your lower half, then lie on your back. You’ll then be asked to part your legs. Once you’re comfortable, your health professional will use a lubricated instrument called a speculum to gently open your vagina so they can see your cervix (the neck of your womb).
Using a small brush, a sample of cells will be collected from your cervix and then sent off to a lab to be tested for human papillomavirus (HPV).
Once your sample has been tested and processed, you’ll be contacted to confirm whether HPV has been identified and if any further steps are necessary – this could involve treatment to remove or destroy any abnormal cells. Your doctor will support you at every step and answer any questions.
If no abnormalities are identified, the NHS will invite you back for your next screening in the next three to five years, depending on your age and where you live.
I’m anxious about my cervical screening – what can I do?
1. Remember, tests may be uncomfortable but they’re not painful
It’s a common perception that cervical screenings are lengthy and painful – but they shouldn’t hurt. It can also be helpful to remind yourself that the test itself only lasts around a minute, and that minute could save your life.
If you’re feeling nervous or the procedure hurts, please let your nurse or doctor know, as they’re specially trained to reassure you and help make you feel more comfortable.
2. Banish embarrassment
Part of the discomfort many feel about their screening may be showing a health professional their intimate areas, but there’s no need to feel embarrassed. No matter what your body shape or size, remember that the person carrying out these tests does so every day – without any judgment. Their priority is helping you to stay healthy.
It’s also worth knowing that you can book your appointment with a female health professional if that helps to make you feel more comfortable.
3. Discover distraction techniques
If you find the procedure daunting, you can help yourself feel less overwhelmed by using distraction techniques. For example, some find it comforting to listen to music or a podcast or to watch something on their phone during their cervical screening. Simply speak to your nurse or doctor and explain that it’ll help to calm your nerves.
Others may find it helpful to count up to 100 to themselves – you may even find that the procedure is over before you’ve reached 50!
4. Share your thoughts
Whether with your friends or your health professional, talking about your worries and experiences around cervical smear tests can help calm your nerves. If you don’t feel comfortable opening up to your loved ones or your health professional on the day, there are some useful resources online, including Jo’s Trust, NHS, and Bupa that can provide helpful guidance.
Talking through or researching how you’re feeling may help you find methods to help, whether it’s self-help techniques or having a chaperone attend your screening with you.
Whatever your worries are, it’s always important to attend your screening as it can help save your life.