Abnormal smear test
Smear tests are used to check the health of the cervix (neck of the womb) and ensure there are no early signs of cervical cancer. The news that you have had an abnormal smear may be worrying. It’s understandable to feel a bit anxious when you’re told a smear requires further investigation. While it’s probably a minor issue, it is important to investigate. Further tests and treatment can stop cervical cancer from developing - 99.8% of cervical cancer cases in the UK are preventable.
What does an abnormal smear test mean?
If your smear test results have been found to be abnormal, this simply means there have been cell changes on your cervix. These changes are not cancer, and for many women, the cells often go back to normal by themselves. The medical terms for cell changes is dyskaryosis. Abnormal smear test results are classified as either low grade (borderline or mild cell changes) or high grade (severe or moderate cell changes). Mild abnormal cell changes (known as CIN 1) often return to normal without treatment. Moderate (CIN 2) or severe (CIN 3) abnormal cell changes don’t indicate cancer, but there’s a higher risk they may become cancerous if treatment isn’t carried out.
What causes cervical cancer?
The smear test checks for human papillomavirus (HPV). Long-lasting infection with HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer. HPV is a common virus in sexually active people – 50% of people who have sex will have HPV at some point in their lives. Despite this high level of infection, only 1 in 142 women develop HPV. Although cervical cancer is rare in women who have not had sex, it is not unheard of, and you should still have regular smear tests.
Who is most at risk from cervical cancer?
Women and anyone born female who has a cervix. The risk is highest for those between the ages of 30 and 45. Cervical cancer is very rare in women under 25 and the incidence lessens in women over the age of 50. Other risk factors for cervical cancer include smoking, a lowered immune system, herpes, use of oral contraceptives and a lack of access to cervical screening.
What can I do to lower my risk of cervical cancer?
It is very important you follow your doctor’s advice and return for further tests or treatment as recommended. Looking at making lifestyle changes will also lower your risk most cancers, including cervical cancer. A diet rich in fruit and vegetables and low in processed foods is recommended, as is exercising. Research shows that even as little as 30 minutes of aerobic exercise per week led to a significant reduction in a woman's risk of a cervical cancer diagnosis. Practicing safer sex – using condoms – or being monogamous will also decrease your chances of cervical cancer.
MY GP has told me my smear test is abnormal. What should I do now?
You should be offered a colposcopy by a gynaecologist if your smear test results are moderate or severe. Many women prefer to see a doctor as soon as possible rather than waiting for a referral. If you wish to book privately, ideally opt for a consultant gynaecologist with a background in oncology and expertise in colposcopy and cervical cancer.