Cervical health is something that all women should be aware of and this means that regular screening should be maintained throughout her lifetime. Once a woman reaches 25 years old, she should be offered cervical screening by the NHS, and should continue to be regularly screened throughout her life to ensure optimum prevention of problems arising. In this article, we aim to give you as much info as possible about cervical screening, to ease your mind and help you to prepare for your appointment.
What is a CST?
The cervix is a narrow neck-like passage forming the lower end of the womb in a woman's reproductive system. Cervical screening is not a test for cancer. It is a test to detect abnormalities within the cervix, which if left untreated, could develop into cancer. Most test results show that everything is normal; but for around 1 in 20 women, abnormal changes in the cells will be detected and suitable treatments will be offered to them by their GP.
How will I know when I need a CST?
All women who are registered with a GP are invited for cervical screening once they reach the age of 25. Women aged between 25 - 49 will be offered screening every three years, women aged 50 - 64 will be screened every five years, and women over 65 will only be offered further screening if they have had abnormal test results in the past. If you haven't received notification from your GP, then it is important that you should pro-actively contact them to arrange your appointment to ensure you have not been missed off the list. Private CSTs are also available if you are willing to self-pay, or sometimes large companies will include this as part of their healthcare package for employees.
What happens at my CST?
Your screening will usually take around 5-10 minutes, and will be carried out usually by a nurse or doctor. You will be asked to undress from the waist down and lie down on a bed. Usually a large sheet of paper or cloth will be placed over you for decency.
The doctor or nurse will then place an instrument called a speculum into your vagina, which holds the walls of the vagina open so that the cervix can be viewed. A small, soft brush will then be inserted to gently collect some cells from the cervix. The sample cells will then be placed into a sample pot to send off for testing in the lab.
Is a CST painful?
Most women do not look forward to their CST, however, there is nothing to worry about as it should be fairly pain free. Some women do feel embarrassed or uncomfortable by the experience, which in turn makes their body tense and makes it harder for the nurse or doctor to carry out the test. Try to think of something else at the time and take long, deep breaths to help yourself relax. Remember it will be over in a flash. If you are particularly anxious or worried about the test, then take a friend along with you and explain to the nurse about your fear - they may be able to offer some advice to make the experience more manageable for you.
When will I get the results?
The results are usually sent to you by post within 2 weeks. Should there be any abnormalities, your GP may contact you via phone sooner than this.
What if the results are abnormal?
Your test results will either come back normal, inadequate or abnormal. If your results were inadequate, you may need to go back for a repeat test as the cells couldn't be seen clearly enough for them to be examined.
If you have an abnormal reading, then you may be told that you have either low-grade, moderate or severe cell changes. Low-grade changes mean that some abnormal cells have been detected, however they are almost normal and therefore may disappear themselves in time. Your sample will also be tested for HPV (human papilloma virus), and if this isn't present then you are at a very low risk of developing cervical cancer, and no further examinations should be needed until your next routine CST. If HPV is detected, you will be sent for a further examination, which will look at your cervix more closely to decide on the next steps.
If your CST result is moderate or severe, you will be automatically offered a colposcopy (an examination of the cervix) to check the changes in your cervical cells, which will then give the GP a better idea of how to treat you. This doesn't mean you have cancer or will get cancer, it just means that some of your cells are abnormal, and if they're not treated they may develop into cervical cancer.
The most important thing to remember is that if found early, the majority of abnormal cells can be treated quickly and effectively. Remember to talk things over with your GP or health professional to eliminate any anxiety, and don't be afraid to ask questions at every step of the way.