Don't say smear : Cervical screening changes

Written by Taylor Satchell Reid

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It’s something us ladies all have to do. And as our editor has turned 25 and received her golden ticket to the gyno’s chair, she decided to dig deep (sorry) and explore the changes to cervical screening…
Who, in their right mind, would choose the word ‘smear’ when inviting women to have their most intimate, inwardly places examined? Surely it’s up there with the cringe effect of ‘moist’, and equally as suited for a baking show, rather than a doctor’s consultation room. It seems the NHS and media industry have seen the error of their ways as ‘cervical screening’ is now the official term used. Much more civilised, don’t you think ladies? And it’s not the only thing that’s changed:

Quickly spotted
This year, cervical screening will be used to focus more primarily on HPV (the human papillomavirus). Currently, women in England are screened for ‘cell changes’ to see if abnormal cells, which could develop into cancer, are present. This is called the ‘cytology’ test. However, while this process is great, it can often bring about confusion for all involved. Some normal cells may be mistaken as abnormal. Meanwhile, some abnormal cells may be disguised as normal. And, as you can imagine, getting a phone-call to say there may be something to worry about, only to find out it was a mistake, is worth avoiding. After this process, any women who show signs of abnormality (in the cervix area, not generally) will be called in for a HPV screening. And it’s this virus which triggers cell changes and causes 99.7% of cervical cancers, according to the NHS.

In other words, it seems the system is now backwards. Research has found it makes more sense to check for HPV first, as anyone who has the infection persistently will be at a higher risk for cervical cancers. Then they can be monitored more closely. It also means that those who are HPV free, won’t go through the worry and back-and-forth of cytology results. Cytology tests will happen after a positive HPV reading. It’s important to remember, just because you test positive for HPV does not mean you will develop or currently have cervical cancer - it just allows doctors to check more thoroughly and prioritise your next cervical screening.

The vaccine generation
Many of you will have been the first to experience the ‘cervical cancer jab’ phenomenon rolled out in our high schools in 2008. Well now the life-saving, lesson-skiving, faint-inducing phenomenon may be having a tangible effect. According to the Journal of Cancer, women who had the HPV (‘cervical cancer’) vaccine may only need to attend three cervical screenings in their lifetime. This research was funded by Cancer Research UK, and it certainly beats ‘one-every-three-years’! But does the vaccine really end the need for consistent screening?

According to Professor Peter Sasieni, the lead researcher on the latest study: “the vaccine works by preventing infections that cause about 70% of cervical cancers.” In his research, Sasieni and his team measured the different outcomes of varying levels of screening for those who had already been vaccinated. According to their findings, having 3 screenings at age 30, 40, and 55 would have the same effectivity as attending a screening every 3 years. While this is encouraging, we are firm believers that it’s better to be safe than sorry! Attending your screenings consistently is incredibly important. But it may become the norm to have fewer screenings for those who have received the vaccination, and we wanted to give you a legs-up! (Pun-intended.)

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