Cervical Screening Awareness Week 2022: what you should do before a smear test - according to an expert

Cervical screening tests don’t test for cancer but are carried out to help prevent it

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Cervical screening may be a daunting prospect for some, and those with certain medical conditions may find the process more uncomfortable than others.

But for those due to be screened, cancer charities and those living with endometriosis have offered their tips and advice for people concerned about their appointment.

Cervical Screening Awareness Week, which ends on Sunday 26 June, has seen a focus on highlighting the screening process.

Here’s everything you need to know.

Experts have shared advice for those due to attend cervical screening appointments.Experts have shared advice for those due to attend cervical screening appointments.
Experts have shared advice for those due to attend cervical screening appointments.

What is cervical screening?

Cervical screening (a smear test) checks the health of your cervix. It’s not a test for cancer, it’s a test to help prevent cancer.

Screening is carried out between the ages of 25 and 64 years old with letters sent inviting those eligible to make an appointment.

During the screening appointment, a small sample of cells will be taken from your cervix and the sample is then checked for certain types of HPV that can cause changes to the cells of your cervix called "high risk" types of HPV.

If these types of HPV are not found, you do not need any further tests.

If these types of HPV are found, the sample is then checked for any changes in the cells of your cervix. These can then be treated before they get a chance to turn into cervical cancer.

You will get your results by letter, usually in about two weeks after your appointment, which will explain what happens next.

Cervical screening is for people who don’t have symptoms so if you do notice any changes that are unusual for you, such as vaginal bleeding after sex, don’t wait for your next screening appointment but talk to your doctor about these instead.

What can I do if I’m worried about my cervical screening appointment?

Karis Betts, senior health information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “Some people can find cervical screening uncomfortable or painful but there are ways to make your appointment work better for you.”

She suggests asking for a longer time slot when booking your appointment so that you can speak through any concerns you may have with the nurse.

Ms Betts added: “Remember you are in control of your appointment. You can ask the nurse to stop at any time, for a different sized speculum, or to try lying in a different position.”

For those going through the menopause, she suggested speaking to your doctor about a short course of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which can help to alleviate vaginal dryness and make the test more comfortable.

For those with learning disabilities attending a cervical screening test, Cancer Research has further advice, including guidance for carers and guardians.

Jo’s Trust offers advice and support for survivors of sexual violence who may be feeling apprehensive about going for their cervical screening.

The charity has a lot of information about cervical screening that you may find helpful, including a blog with useful tips and a number of support services, including:

  • a free Helpline on 0808 802 8000
  • an online forum
  • an online Ask the Expert service

What if I have endometriosis?

Although some find cervical screening painful with a speculum, the charity Endometriosis UK said if you have the condition endometriosis - where tissue similar to the lining of the womb starts to grow in other places - the test may be more painful than normal.

This is because “if you have endometriosis that affects your pelvis, it may cause scarring and inflammation, meaning that inserting a speculum can cause pain by pulling or stretching the affected area that could be in front of the cervix, to the side, or behind it,” the charity said.

For those who have endometriosis, it’s suggested they inform the nurse they have the condition and that it might be painful for them, so the right steps can be taken to make the experience easier.

The charity added: “People with endometriosis shouldn’t be put off from attending their cervical screening - the person carrying out the screening is there to help you and make it as comfortable as possible.”

Endometriosis UK recently asked for people’s experiences on Instagram. This is what those with endometriosis who have been for their cervical screening had to say:

  • Explain you have endometriosis, what it is, that you mind find the procedure painful, and to use a smaller speculum, more water or gel
  • Ask the nurse to talk you through the process and let them know your concerns prior to the test
  • Ask to book a longer appointment
  • Ask if you can take somebody with you
  • Try lying on your side during the test
  • Breathe through it and ask the nurse to be as slow and gentle as possible
  • Have a heat pad ready for after the test