September is Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month! In support, we're dedicating this month's Pink Parcel to The Eve Appeal – a charity that’s committed to raising awareness and funding research around the five types of gynaecological cancer.
Every day in the UK, 58 women are diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer and 21 will die – a shocking statistic considering the fact that one in three women are avoiding smear tests because they're embarrassed about their vaginas, a survey revealed.
Smear tests prevent up to 75% of cervical cancers from developing. Here, our resident Pink Parcel GP, Dr. Tatiana Lapa, explains everything there is to know about cervical screenings.
Does a smear test hurt?
"A smear test is done by a doctor or nurse at your GP surgery. The procedure can take around 5-10 minutes to do. It may be a little uncomfortable but, for most women, it’s not painful. If you find the test painful tell your doctor or nurse as they may be able to reposition you, use a smaller instrument or offer some advice to help you relax. Try to focus on keeping your bottom and thighs relaxed as tensing up can make the test more difficult and uncomfortable and try to focus on your breathing."
Is it normal to bleed after?
"It is normal to have some light bleeding for 1-2 days after a smear. If you experience heavy bleeding or prolonged bleeding, it is best to see a doctor."
Can you have a smear test when you're on your period?
"It is best to have your smear when you are not having your period. The best time to have a smear test is half-way through your cycle. If your cycle is unpredictable, book your appointment and let the nurse know if you’re bleeding on the day. They can advise you whether it is possible to continue with the smear test."
How often should you have a smear test?
"Smear tests are offered every 3 years to women aged 25 to 49 and then every 5 years to women aged 50 to 64. Sometimes smear tests can pick up early changes to the cells of the cervix, in which case the woman may be offered further investigations such as colposcopy or early repeat testing.
"We generally do not advise to do the smear test every year. This is because the cell changes that can lead to cancer take a long time to develop. Cervical cancer does not develop overnight. It usually takes multiple changes to the cells before a cancer can develop. Doing the test every 3-5 years will identify any changes that can then be treated."
How exactly is it done?
"A smear test aims to sample the cells of the cervix – this is the top part of the vagina and forms the junction between the vagina and the womb. It is done by a doctor or nurse at your GP surgery. Your nurse will position you on the bed and then gently insert speculum (a plastic tube) into the vagina in order to be able to see the cervix. A small brush is then swept across the cervix to collect cells from the surface. These cells are then sent to the laboratory to be examined.
"The test is not painful, although can be slightly uncomfortable. It really helps if you are able to stay as relaxed as possible. If needed, the doctor or nurse can you a smaller size of speculum."
Why is it so important to have them?
"The smear test looks for cells that could develop into cervical cancer. We know that the cells of the cervix undergo a series of early changes before becoming cancer cells. The national screening programme aims to regularly check for these early changes so that pre-cancerous cells can be identified and treated. Cervical cancer is one of the few types of cancer that can be detected and stopped before it even begins. And the proof in the pudding - since starting smear tests, the numbers of cervical cancers and cancer deaths have dropped significantly. So don’t take the risk, get your smear test."
What happens if I forget or miss mine?
"You will receive an invitation letter for a smear test when you are next due for one. If you didn’t get the letter, can’t remember when you last had it or forgot to book your appointment – don’t panic. Book to see your practice nurse. The nurse can check when you last had your smear done, whether or not you’re due for one and can do the smear test for you. You normally get results posted to you within 2 weeks of the test."