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What is cervical screening?

Screening is intended to detect precancerous changes on the cervix. Therefore an abnormal result does not represent cancer! In the vast majority it only represents precancer and it can be sorted out within 5 to 10 minutes in clinic.

About 5% of women will have a precancerous abnormality (borderline, mild, moderate or severe) on their smear. By treating the precancer it is estimated that up to 4,500 lives are saved each year in England by cervical screening.

Despite its success around 900 women die of cervical cancer in England each year. However, many of those who develop it have not been screened regularly. Not going for cervical screening is one of the biggest risk factors for developing cervical cancer. Other risk factors for developing cervix cancer are:

  • smoking
  • starting sex at an early age
  • having had several sexual partners or had a sexual partner who has had several other partners
  • taking immunosuppressant drugs (for example, after an organ transplant).

Currently in England the test is offered to all women aged between 25 and 64. After the first cervical screen, subsequent screens are carried out every three years between the ages of 25 and 49. Between the ages of 50 and 64 the interval increases to five years.

It must be noted that like any other screening programme, taking cervical smears is not 100% effective in detecting precancer! A very small minority will be unfortunate enough to have a "falsely negative" smear result. This means that there is a precancerous abnormality on the cervix but the smear has not been able to detect the abnormal cells and the woman will be given false reassurance that everything is normal. However, because the transition from precancer to cancer can take some years, as long as the woman has regular smears when invited, there is a good possibility that the precancer will be picked up the next time before it has become a cancer. Unfortunately, some will not be that lucky.

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