I know we dread it. When the letter pops through the letterbox, we all grimace – but that little test can save your life.
Did you know that in England, screening currently prevents 70% of cervical cancer deaths. If everybody attended regularly, those figures could shoot up to 83%.
The symptoms of cervical cancer are so slight, they could be missed or mistaken for normal menstrual symptoms. These include bleeding between periods and changes in vaginal discharge. That’s why we should cheer for the smear – how lucky we are to have a ten-minute test that can catch those issues early on and treating it more effectively.
Cervical screenings – often referred to as ‘the smear’ – are often mistaken as a test for cancer. This is not the case. Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). A smear is looking for abnormal cells caused by the HPV virus, which left untreated can develop into cancer. It normally takes around five years for the HPV virus to cause abnormal cells. Meaning that keeping on top of your screening attendance, which is normally every three years if no abnormal cells are found, you have a strong chance of catching these cells before they cause any issues.
“I was nervous but I left with great satisfaction AT how quick and easy it had been overall”
HPV is extremely common and most people are likely to have the virus at some point of their life. It is passed through close skin to skin contact during sexual activity with either a man or a woman. It is likely that your immune system will fight this off and you’ll never even know you had the virus. But in some cases, the virus can cause abnormal cells on the cervix.
A common myth that I wanted to look into was that women feel that if they have only had one sexual partner for a long amount of time, it meant they don’t really need to attend their smear, as it is unlikely they would have the HPV virus. This however is untrue as the virus can live in the body at a very low or undetectable level for a long time. Therefore, a partner from a long time ago could have passed you the virus.
Another myth I wanted to check was that it if the opinion of some that if they have received their HPV vaccination, they do not need to attend their screening. Again, this is not the case. Whilst the vaccination does protect you from the high-risk types of HPV, it does not protect you from all. There are some less common strains of the virus that can still lead to abnormalities, which are not covered.
Lastly, I often hear from women about it being painful as ‘they take a layer of cervix away’ during the treatment. I attended my smear last week and had a good luck at the instruments beforehand. I could maybe liken it to an oddly shaped toothbrush. This is simply ‘smeared’ very quickly across the cervix with very minimal sensation at all. It was all over within around three minutes from start to finish.
The most effective way to protect yourself from cervical cancer is to simply accept that invitation for your screening. Nurses that perform the treatment, do it day in day out and do their absolute upmost to make the experience as comfortable as possible. I’m sure there is nothing you have they haven’t seen before. I was asked before any treatment commenced, if I was comfortable to go ahead alone as there is the option to have another nurse in attendance.
Of course, in the morning beforehand, I was nervous but I left with great satisfaction that I had gone ahead and done my best to prevent issues, and at how quick and easy it had been overall.