Every year, around 3,000 new cases of cervical cancer are reported in the UK. Despite approximately 99.8 per cent of cases being preventable, there are still many misconceptions surrounding cervical cancer, particularly with regards to smear tests and HPV.
Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, an annual campaign led by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, is being held this year from Monday 20 to Sunday 26 January. Each day, The Independent will be publishing content to help raise awareness and dispel myths regarding cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer screenings, more commonly known as smear tests, have been in the news a lot in recent years after research published in November 2018 revealed that attendance in the UK had reached a 21-year low.
While the reasons for this are varied – some studies cite embarrassment while others claim it’s down to a fear of the results – experts say all this is largely down to the countless misconceptions that people have about what actually happens during a smear test.
In February 2019, a study claimed that a fifth of women mistakenly think smear tests can detect ovarian cancer, while others fear it will be intensely painful.
In actual fact, these lifesaving tests do not detect ovarian cancer and aren’t painful at all.
Read on for some of the biggest misconceptions about smear tests and the truth about why these screenings are so important.
An abnormal result means you have cancer
After you have a smear test, the result will be one of three outcomes: normal, inadequate or abnormal.
While the latter might incite anxiety, it’s not necessarily anything to worry about, says consultant gynaecologist Meg Wilson of London Gynaecology.
“An abnormal smear is very common and does not mean cancer,” she tells The Independent. “It means that your smear test has done its job and picked up an abnormality before it becomes anything serious.
“These pre-cancerous cells can be then diagnosed using colposcopy, so that cervical cancer is prevented.”
A colposcopy can confirm whether cells in your cervix are abnormal and determine whether you need treatment to remove them.
Smear tests are very painful
Smear tests are not painful for most women, explains a spokesperson for charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.
“Some people might find it slightly uncomfortable and this is totally normal,” they tell The Independent.
“If you feel that it does hurt, or you have a health condition which you fear might make it more painful, speak to your nurse to discuss how you can make your test easier and more comfortable.”
You don’t need to have a smear test if you’ve had the HPV vaccine
Women who’ve had the (human papillomavirus) HPV vaccine, which is the name for a group of viruses that can lead to cervical cancer, will have a high degree of protection against cervical cancer but it doesn’t completely protect you, explains Wilson.
“Therefore, it is very important that you still attend regular screening even if you have been vaccinated to reduce your risk and have maximum protection,” she adds.
They check for sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
While some women think smear tests can detect ovarian cancer, others wrongly believe it doubles up as an STI test.
“It doesn’t,” confirms Wilson.
If you want to get tested for STIs, you can do so by booking an appointment at your nearest sexual health clinic.
You need to shave
Research carried out by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust found that 31 per cent of women would put off booking their cervical screening if they hadn’t waxed or shaved while a further 38 per cent admitted that they would be put off attending because of concerns over smelling “normal”.
A spokesperson for the charity comments: “It’s completely normal to be embarrassed by the prospect of a smear test but try to remember that nurses have seen it all before and their only concern is doing the best job they can.”
A smear test can detect ovarian cancer
There is, in fact, no equivalent test for detecting ovarian cancer, making an understanding of symptoms crucial for early diagnosis.
These include persistent bloating, loss of appetite, tummy pain and needing to urinate more often or urgently.
Annwen Jones, chief executive of Target Ovarian Cancer, said: “We need to combat the confusion around ovarian cancer and cervical screening, because while smear tests are a vital tool in public health, a similar option simply does not exist in ovarian cancer.”
Read our step-by-step guide to what happens during a smear test here.