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Cervical screening - your questions answered

Female medical professional smiling

In this blog post, we answer your questions about cervical screening and what Yorkshire Cancer Research is doing to increase participation.

What is cervical screening?

Cervical screening is sometimes known as a smear test. It is a test to check the health of your cervix, which is the entrance to the womb from the vagina.

The cervical screening test takes a small sample of cells from the cervix to look for signs of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes almost all cases of cervical cancer. If HPV is found, then the cells from the cervix are inspected for any pre-cancerous changes.  

Cervical screening is not a test to detect cancer, but rather a test to prevent cancer. If any abnormal changes are found during cervical screening, they can be treated or removed before they turn into cancer. 

Who is invited for cervical screening?

The NHS invites all women aged 25 to 64 for a cervical screening appointment. If you are 65 or older, you will only be automatically invited for screening if one of your last three tests was abnormal. You can still receive screening by making an appointment through your GP if you have never been for cervical screening, or have not been since the age of 50.

Trans men and/or non-binary people with a cervix are also eligible for cervical screening. You can find out more on the NHS website.

How do I book an appointment?

You will be sent an invitation in the post, and the letter will tell you where you can go for cervical screening and how to book. The screening is often done at your GP practice by a female nurse or doctor.

If you think you have missed an appointment you can contact your GP practice.

How often will I be invited for cervical screening?

You will be invited every three years between the ages of 25 to 49, and every five years from ages 50 to 64.

Why should I attend my appointment if invited?

Cervical screening is one of the best ways to protect yourself from cervical cancer. Spotting abnormal changes and treating them early could save your life.

Children aged 12 and 13 are offered the HPV vaccine to protect from nine types of HPV, two of which cause more than 8 in every 10 cases of cervical cancer. But even if you’ve had the HPV vaccine, it is still important to attend screening as you can still be at risk of developing cervical cancer.

What happens during a cervical screening appointment?

During your appointment, you will be asked to undress from the waist down and lie on a bed with your knees bent. The nurse will place a plastic instrument called a speculum into your vagina so that they can see the cervix clearly. They will then use a soft brush to collect a small sample of cells from your cervix, and then the speculum will be removed. The sample of cells will be sent to a laboratory for testing, to check for signs of HPV.

The screening process usually lasts about 5 minutes, with the whole appointment taking no longer than 10 minutes.

Does cervical screening hurt?

For most people, cervical screening feels uncomfortable or a little strange, but shouldn’t be painful. However, some women do find that it hurts, particularly if they have pre-existing medical conditions which affect the cervix or vagina. Tell the nurse performing the test if you have any concerns about pain or pre-existing conditions.

Is there anything I can do to make screening more comfortable?

Cervical screening is usually carried out by a female nurse or doctor, but you can specifically request this when booking your appointment. You can also bring someone along with you, request a longer appointment, or ask for a small speculum to be used.

What could the results of screening be?

The results will usually be sent to you in the post within two weeks of your appointment.

Most people will have an HPV-negative result. This means your risk of getting cervical cancer is very low, and you will be invited back for screening in three or five years as normal.

If high-risk HPV is found, the laboratory will look again at your sample for any changes to the cells of your cervix. If abnormal changes are detected, you will be invited back for further tests. If there are no abnormal changes, you will be invited to a screening appointment a year later to check if the HPV has gone.

Why is cervical screening important in Yorkshire?

Around 250 cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed in Yorkshire in 2021.

Around 3 in 4 (72%) people eligible for screening in Yorkshire take part in screening when invited. Although this is slightly above the average for England as a whole (70%), it means more than 1 in 4 women in Yorkshire do not attend screening when invited.

In addition, there’s a wide variation in attendance across Yorkshire, particularly in women aged 25 to 49. In Bradford, of those invited aged 25-49, just 64% took part in screening, whereas in the East Riding of Yorkshire, the figure was 76%. In some GP practice areas, as few as 3 in 10 women took part in cervical screening.

What is Yorkshire Cancer Research doing to improve cervical screening? 

We encourage everyone to book a cervical screening appointment when invited. Yorkshire Cancer Research funds various research and services to improve participation in all cancer screening across the region. Local programmes can identify the reasons why people don’t attend screening appointments and address these issues with specific and targeted approaches.

A £1.5 million research study, led by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, will offer at-home urine tests to women aged 65-79 who are no longer automatically invited for cervical screening. The test can detect HPV (Human papillomavirus), which is linked to nearly all cases of cervical cancer. Those with HPV will be able to access further tests and screening to prevent cancer from developing.

South Yorkshire and Bassetlaw Cancer Champions is a programme led by the South Yorkshire and Bassetlaw ICS Cancer Alliance and Yorkshire Cancer Research which is supporting people living in the area to take up their cancer screening invitations. The programme aims to tackle health inequalities by reducing the variation in screening rates, working with primary care staff to deliver a range of activities to raise awareness of the importance of screening and encourage more people to take part.

The Leeds GP Confederation is leading a programme to support more people in Leeds to take part in cancer screening. Building on the progress achieved by the Cancer Wise Leeds programme, nine Cancer Care Coordinators will be appointed to work with GP practices in eight areas of the city, helping to address health inequalities in the most deprived communities.

We encourage you to book a cervical screening appointment when invited. Find out more about cervical screening on the NHS website.