Cervical screening: what is it and what do my results mean?

I’ve been so humbled to receive so many messages over the last few weeks telling me you saw my social media posts about Cervical Screening Awareness Week and finally decided to go for your cervical screening appointment that you’ve been putting off for many moons.

I’m kind of known amongst friends and colleagues for banging on and on about cervical screening (a.k.a. smear testing) but it’s for one simple reason: it’s 2017, and with an excellent screening programme in the UK, no woman deserves to die of cervical cancer. No, seriously, I'm not being dramatic - cervical screening is THE single best way to prevent this disease.

So let’s get down to the cold hard facts.

Do I really need to go?

Anyone over 25 who has ever been sexually active, needs to attend screening. It doesn't matter how many men, or even women you've had sex with, how long ago the last time was, or if you've been in a monogamous relationship for years...you still need to go when you get invited. Read my last post to understand why #sorrynotsorry

What the test does…

It collects a sprinkling of cells from the cervix, also called the neck of the womb, which sits at the top of the vagina. These cells are then examined under a microscope to look for abnormal cells that have the potential to change into a cancer in the future, and therefore the test is NOT a test for cancer. Cervical cancer takes about 10-15 years to develop which is why we do the screening every 3 years from age 25 (every 5 years in over 50’s) to identify these abnormal cells and if needed to treat them before they turn into a proper cancer.

What the test does not do…

1. It does not check for sexually transmitted infections (e.g. Chalmydia, Gonorrhoea, HIV etc). You should go to your local sexual health/GUM clinic if you need a sexual health screen.

2. It doesn’t tell you anything about your ovaries/fertility/parties going on in your uterus. We literally only collect cells from the cervix which can be completely normal even if there’s something else going on further up in the reproductive tract. If you have symptoms or are concerned you should speak to your GP.

3. It does not hurt – we use a small plastic speculum to open up the vaginal walls, which can be uncomfortable initially, and then we use a brush with soft bristles to collect the sample. It literally takes 60 seconds. Most people feel very little, some say it’s uncomfortable, very few people say it’s painful, but either way its 60 seconds that could save your life…I’d say its worth it.

And if it’s abnormal?

We invite you to come to colposcopy clinic so that we can visualise your cervix directly under a microscope and make a decision about 1. whether there truly is an abnormality present (its only a screening test, so just says you are likely to have an abnormality, but the colposcopy will confirm it) and 2. Whether its an abnormality that we can watch to see if it’s going to go away on it’s own (As most do), or whether it needs removing straight away. But more on this another day.


In summary, we know that cervical screening is very effective for preventing cervical cancer, but only when women actually attend. From the introduction of the national screening programme in 1988, you can see on the graph that there was a massive drop in the number of cases of cervical cancer. Unfortunately the number of eligible women attending screening has been dropping over the last few years, and when this happens we see an increase in the rate of the disease again. So make sure you protect yourself by going for the test.

Rather scarily a survey published last week revealed that 28% of women who did not attend their cervical screening were unaware of the test. Astounding! So I’m asking you, please: spread the word. You could literally save your best friend/sister/mum/colleague’s life…even your boss if you like her that much…

Check out the quick 2 minute video I made to explain the test results in more detail, or if you want to listen to my best Radio 4 voice…