Smear test 

A smear test is a screening method to detect pre-cancerous cells. A gynaecologist explains what the test involves, why you should have it and how often.

Find out more about cervical screening tests

Transcript of Smear test

I'm Andy Nordin,

I'm a subspecialist gynaecological oncologist,

which is a gynaecologist who specialises in looking after women with cancer.

The smear test, people talk about it as a cervical cancer smear test.

It's actually a cervical precancer smear test

and women who are referred to hospital because of an abnormal test,

in the very large majority don't have cancer, they have precancer

and they can have a small procedure done in the clinic under local anaesthetic

which will prevent cancer forming.

It's one of the few cancers where we can detect the precancer changes,

treat the precancer and stop cancer from forming.

Cervical cancer develops as a process through a precancer stage,

which is called CIN.

And it's caused by, actually, by an infection with a particular virus

called HPV, human papilloma virus, sometimes called the wart virus.

And the infection with HPV is extremely common.

They say by the age of 50, 80% of women will have been exposed

to the wart virus.

And there are certain types of the wart virus

which predispose to developing precancer and cancer of the cervix.

The interesting thing

about those high-risk HPV infections is that they're very, very common

and at the age of 20, something like one in three women will have an infection

and at the age of 25, it's about one in four.

And by the age 35 it's about one in eight.

And so it's very common to get the infection but most women,

and men, for that matter, clear the infection themselves and it goes away.

Women who are at risk of developing cervical cancer

are women who have that infection and their immune system doesn't clear it.

And so it stays in the skin and the cervix

and that's how the precancer changes start to develop.

The cervical screening programme,

where women go along and have the smear test done at their doctor's,

is designed to pick up those precancer changes,

so we can treat ladies in our colposcopy clinics

to stop cancer from forming.

About 95% of women who have high-grade precancer changes treated

find that their smears go back to normal.

If the virus goes away, further problems are unlikely

but it's important to stay within the screening programme

and after a precancer treatment, women have a smear every year for ten years

before they go back into routine three-year screening.

I can't emphasize strongly enough

how important going along for your regular cervical smear test is.

Cervical cancer really is a preventable cancer

and we've seen a fantastic reduction in the incidence,

that is the number of cases of cervical cancer occurring,

and also the death rate, the mortality, from cervical cancer,

since the screening programme was properly established in 1988.

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