Cervical Cancer Prevention Week runs from January 22-28th. It’s one of those big scary C’s that we don’t talk enough about. The words “Mortality rate” and “most common cancer” are bandied about, but as a society, we seem to stick our fingers in our ears and hum. Much has been done on this in recent years, but we’ve a long way to go.
Cervical Cancer is the second most common female cancer in Europe, second only to breast cancer. It is thought to affect 300 women per year (thats nearly one a day diagnosed). Of these 300, it’s thought that 90 die each year from it, which is a scary statistic to think about. While it’s non-discriminate in who it chooses, it is thought that 99% of Cervical Cancer is caused by HPV (human papilloma virus). This is something that a vaccination has been rolled out for in recent years in Ireland, The Gardisil Vaccine.
Vaccination aside, prevention methods have come more to the fore in recent years. Women over the age of 25 are entitled to a cervical smear test free of charge from their GP or reproductive health clinic. This screening, if taken up, can catch changes in cells before they become dangerous, and save lives. However, it still seems that uptake is not as high as it should be. A report from 2014/2015 cited a 79% uptake in the screening process, with 83% of these between 25 and 49. While 79% still makes up more than 280,000 women in that space of time (not including those screened on alternate years, given the average is once every three years), there are still more who opt out of the process.
So, why do so many opt out of the process? What stops people from getting it over and done with? Fear is a big reason that gets bandied around – fear of the potential results, of being told that you’ve got something. Unfortunately, not getting the test done won’t stop you getting cervical cancer – it may however stop you finding an easily treatable abnormal cell before it can turn more nasty. Some women think that their sexual history means they don’t need one – the official word from Cervical Check is that regardless of sexual status, its worth getting it done.
Alright, you’ve convinced me. How Do I Get A Smear Test?
Once you’re on the register, and due your next smear you’ll receive a reminder letter in the post. You don’t need the letter to book an appointment for your smear, that can be done by calling the GP or Nurses office.
So, what happens during a smear test?
A cervical smear generally takes place in a nurses office, though some may be carried out by a GP. It takes about 15-20 minutes from start to end of appointment, and is free of charge. After a brief chat with the nurse about medical history and health issues, they will then run through the procedure with you to ensure informed consent is received before carrying it out.
For the procedure itself, you are required to be undressed from the waist down. Some places will give you a gown, others a blanket. You lie back on an examination bed with knees bent up or legs in stirrups. The nurse will insert an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. They may use lubricant on the speculum, for easier insertion. The speculum (likely plastic, sometimes metal) will be gently opened inside your vagina. This allows the nurse to see your cervix. A specially designed brush takes a sample of cells from your cervix.
In my experience and from speaking to others, if you experience pain or discomfort during the process, speak up – you can ask for a smaller speculum which can ease the discomfort. It’s generally shortlived, but afterwards do keep in mind that you may have some spotting. It’s handy to have a sanitary pad on hand.
I’m pregnant/ I’ve just had a baby. Does this mean I need another smear?
You do not need a smear test after having a baby unless you are due to have a smear test. If you’re pregnant and previous smears have come back negative, then you can put off the smear until three months after birth of baby. If you’re pregnant and previously have had smears show some abnormalities, it’s best to get it done during pregnancy, on advice of your GP. A smear test can be done safely during pregnancy and is usually taken in the second trimester (weeks 13-26).
So, What About Results?
Your samples are sent off to a lab which takes about 4-6 weeks to come back with an answer. In the vast majority of cases, the results come back normal (negative). Your GP will have received your detailed results and will be able to explain any findings. If abnormalities are found, further smears or tests may be needed. It’s definitely worth keeping in mind that IF abnormalities are found, in the majority of cases this does not mean cancer. It merely shows changes that you’re catching before they can become anything more sinister.
So, what are you waiting for? If you’ve not gotten yourself sorted out with a smear, and you’re between 25 and 60, get it done. It’s twenty minutes of your life that could save your life – you can’t really fight with that.