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What an abnormal smear test result could mean

Routine cervical screening is the most effective way to prevent cervical cancer. But what happens when you get an 'abnormal' result? We chat to 29-year-old Isha who found out she had abnormal cells after her second screening. She highlights the importance of attending your appointments and how she kept positive throughout the experience.

I recently received my first invitation for a cervical screening through the post (I'm almost 25) and I have to admit I felt somewhat excited. Similar to receiving my first voter registration letter at 18, I had the sense that this was an important and positive thing to do. Sadly, this is not the case for many women.

Around 2,600 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in England each year and around 690 of these cases are fatal - that's two deaths every day. It is estimated that if everyone attended screening regularly, 83% of cervical cancer cases could be prevented.

Public Health England (PHE) has launched a national campaign, Cervical Screening Saves Lives', to try to encourage more women to respond to their cervical screening invitation letter, attend their appointments and reschedule with their GP if they've missed one previously.

There is even an at-home smear test kit pilot scheme being trialled later this year in a bid to increase participation and awareness.

"Cervical screening is one of the most important ways we can prevent cervical cancer developing, as no woman deserves to die from the disease," implores gynaecologist and obstetrician Dr Anita Mitra, aka the Gynae Geek.

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What actually is cervical screening?

A regular screening only takes 3-5 minutes and despite what many think, it is not a test for cervical cancer.

"It actually looks at the health of the cervix and identifies abnormal cells that can develop into cancer if left untreated," explains Mitra.

It's a very straightforward procedure, and a nurse will be with you every step of the way.

"I had my first screening done was when I was 25," 29-year-old masters student and women's health advocate Isha Webber, recalls. "The nurse was really good at relaxing me; telling me to take deep breaths and explaining the different feelings that I might experience - such as cold, tightness, or discomfort."

"About two and a half weeks later I received a letter saying that the screening test had come back perfectly normal and that I would be reminded in three years time." So far, so good.

"I saw my practice nurse last July for something unrelated and she reminded me that my three-year screening test was due, so I booked myself in."

This time around, Webber's screening result was 'abnormal'.

What does an 'abnormal' result mean?

If your screening result is 'abnormal', don't panic. An abnormal cell result doesn't mean you have cervical cancer, simply that changes in the cells have been detected.

"These changes can then develop into cancer. However, if they are detected in time, treatment can stop cancer before it begins," assures Mitra.

When Webber got the results of her second scan, she said the staff went above and beyond. "I received a phone call because the local hospital wasn't sure if the letter would get to me in time."

They explained that you can have normal, mild-to-moderate, severe or high abnormal cell levels, and further tests were needed to check their severity.

Webber had no prior symptoms to this, which is why it's still highly important to attend regular screenings when invited. If you do experience irregular symptoms such as abnormal vaginal bleeding during or after sex, book an appointment with your GP.

After learning you have an abnormal result, it's important to stay positive and keep a logical head - it's best to avoid scaremongering websites and to try not to assume the worst.

"I thought, if anything has been found, it can be dealt with. So I tried to stay quite calm and very logical," Webber recalls. "I did actually receive the letter in the end and it came with a really helpful leaflet that basically explains the next steps, how the biopsies will be taken and why."

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What is a colposcopy?

A colposcopy is a detailed examination of the neck of the womb (cervix), where a special microscope, called a colposcope, is used to look at the cells in detail.

A liquid is painted on to the cervix to show up any abnormal cells and a small piece of tissue may be taken from the cervix. This is known as a biopsy.

Webber says the colposcopy was explained to her really well in a pre-op consultation with the gynaecologist - there was even a diagram.

When it came to the actual procedure, the team made sure to put her at ease, providing the option of disposable underwear so you don't feel totally bare.

"It was a bit unnerving because they have a screen that you can look at next to you, but I had two nurses who were holding my hands, telling me to take deep breaths and informing me of what the gynaecologist was going to do."

This may have prolonged the procedure, but Webber steadfastly believes it was worth it to be informed.

"He had to numb my cervix before he could take the biopsies and told me that it would feel like a pinch."

Don't put off the appointment

The most important thing to remember about cervical screening is: don't put it off.

If you're nervous, Webber suggests talking about your screening with a friend or family member who has had it done before, or even bringing them along if you want to.

"Many women I've come across put off screenings as they fear it will hurt or they feel embarrassed," reveals Mitra. The reality is, it's five minutes every 3 to 5 years (depending on your age) that could potentially save your life!

"It's an area of our body that we don't discuss often, and there's a misconception about sexual activity," says Webber. "We should be more aware that it's the only screening test that can be done to prevent a cancer."

Many women simply feel they don't have the time, which is why childcare providers across the UK are beginning to offer free care so mums can attend their cervical screening appointments.

If you have forgotten when you are next due, speak with your GP surgery as they can let you know when your next screening is or book you in for one if you have missed it.

Webber had treatment to remove the abnormal cells at the end of 2018. She'll have a check-up this year to make sure the treatment has worked and the abnormal cells have cleared.

"I was really happy that I went in for my second screening," she says. "Sometimes we may feel that if our first one comes back clear you don't need a second. I was very grateful that actually, I didn't just leave it for later."

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The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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