If the idea of having your cervix prodded makes you feel a bit ill, we’re here to break down everything you need to know about this rather uncomfortable but incredibly necessary test; what it is, why you need it, what happens during, what the results mean, and more. It’s time to take the scariness out of cervical screening because it’s really nothing to worry about… smear-ly a quick test to make sure everything’s healthy!
Cervical screening is often referred to as a “smear test”, which isn’t the nicest sounding name, we’ll admit! It’s basically a quick swab-style test that checks the health of your cervix - that’s the opening of your womb. It’s good to remember this isn’t a test for cancer, it simply checks for abnormal cells that could help prevent cancer further down the line.
Scary stories of painful screenings are largely untrue, and are the reason so many people avoid getting their test done, even though often it’s barely felt and over in seconds. During a cervical screening appointment, a tiny sample of cells will be taken from your cervix and checked for certain types of HPV (human papillomavirus). These types are considered “high-risk”, and more likely to cause changes to cells that can lead to cancer. Pretty much all cases of cervical cancer can be linked back to these high-risk types.
Cervical cancer is very rare in people younger than 25, so in the UK the NHS cervical screening programme invites women between the ages of 25 and 64, even if they have been vaccinated through the HPV vaccination programme, as this does not protect against all kinds of HPV.
Cervical screening is also offered to anyone who has a cervix but does not identify as female (for example trans men or non-binary people). According to the Gov.uk website, anyone within the age range above who is registered with a GP as female will automatically receive an invitation to book a test. However, this means people registered as male may not receive this invitation. If this applies to you, remember you are entitled to screening if you have a cervix, so speak to your GP or another service (see below) about getting this done.
Many people hesitate to book their appointment, but we can’t stress enough; this screening could save your life. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. And yes, it’s probably not the top of your to-do list, but for most people it’s a very small price to pay to prevent something that could turn into a major issue. If you don’t want to visit your GP for this, you can do it at a separate sexual health clinic, and there are also specialist clinics for people who may need additional support.
CliniQ is a holistic sexual health and wellbeing service for trans people, partners and friends, offering cervical screening in a safe, confidential space for those who don’t feel comfortable using mainstream services. My Body Back Project is a specialist service offering screening to those who have experienced sexual assault, with specially trained, all-female staff.
It’s recommended to go for your screening on a day when you don’t have your period, and you may want to bring some wet wipes to freshen up ‘down there’ before the screening begins. It’s typically a female nurse who will do the test, which will only take a minute or two - sometimes less. You will be asked to take off your clothes from the waist down, including underwear, and lie on a bed with a paper towel to cover your hips, with your knees apart.
The nurse will use a plastic instrument called a speculum covered in a lubricant so it slides into your vagina easily. This helps them see and access the cervix, and sometimes feels more uncomfortable if you are tense, so try to take deep relaxing breaths before insertion.
A soft brush will be inserted and rotated a few times to take samples of cells from your cervix. Many people don’t feel this at all, but if you do it’s unlikely to be painful. The speculum is removed, you get dressed again, and the sample is put into a pot of liquid and sent to the lab for testing. Job done!
For most people, nothing! You'll usually get your results in around 2 weeks, and this letter will explain any further action needed. You’ll then be invited again in 3 to 5 years, depending on your age and where you live. In some cases, you may be asked to return in 3 months to have the test again. This doesn’t mean anything is wrong, it could just mean the results were unclear. Although it’s frustrating, it’s best to go along and get another test.
To put the results as simply as possible:
Many people see anything less than a normal result and assume ‘it must be cancer!’ but that’s rarely the case. The majority of results come back normal, but if anything needs looked into further, your doctor will explain the course of action to keep you healthy.
Got a question about cervical cancer screening? Our Full Stop FB group is an inclusive, understanding place to share your worries, or you can ask us questions directly on Instagram at @itsyoppie. Don't forget that our personalised menstrual care subscription can get organic tampons, PMS supplements and much more delivered easily and regularly through your letterbox, so that's one less thing to worry about with everything that can be going on down there.
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