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Why Are Smear Tests So Important?

Being a mom, you might feel like you’re busy ALL THE TIME. But it’s still important that you make time for things that protect your health and wellbeing; such as looking after yourself emotionally, and keeping up to date with appointments like the dentist, and cervical smear tests. Oh the joys!

Over 6,500 women need hospital treatment for pre-cancer of the cervix each year in Ireland, approximately 300 women get cervical cancer, and 90 women die from it.  But the risk of this occurring is greatly reduced by making use of the free screening programme offered by CervicalCheck, which recommends that women between the ages of 25 to 44 are tested every three years, and that women aged 45 to 60 are tested every five years.

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Luckily (speaking as someone who avoids making appointments for anything wherever possible) it’s very easy: You can go onto cervicalcheck.ie to ensure that you’re registered correctly, with your PPS number. They’ll then let you know when you’re due your next test. And you don’t even have to go to your GP: There are 4,500 registered clinics which can perform the test across Ireland, so you can choose wherever is most convenient. And it’s free!

What is a smear test?

The cervical screening test (smear test) is a method of detecting changes in the cells of the cervix. It’s not a test for cancer, but it does check the health of the cervix and look for warning signs. Most test results show that everything is normal. But for one in 20 women, the test will show changes in the cells of the cervix.

Most of these changes won’t lead to cervical cancer: If your results show abnormal cells, you’ll be sent for screening every six months to monitor the cells: Often things will go back to normal on their own. But in some cases, the abnormal cells will need to be treated, to prevent them becoming a problem later. Being screened regularly means that any changes in the cells of the cervix can be identified early on and, if necessary, treated before cancer develops.

It’s estimated that early detection and treatment can prevent up to 75% of cervical cancers from developing.

How it works on the day

We won’t pretend you’ll necessarily enjoy being poked with a speculum, but it really isn’t as bad as you might build up in your head as an excuse! On arrival, you’ll have a chat with the smear taker, and may do a quick run through, of where you are in your menstrual cycle. It is best to have the screening test in the middle of the menstrual cycle (between periods), so book your appointment to coincide with this.

You’ll then be left alone for a few minutes to undress (You might prefer to wear a skirt to minimise the amount you have to remove!) When you’re ready, you’ll sit on the bed, covered with the classic doctor's office piece of paper.

During the test

The test itself takes less than 10 minutes (even with awkward banter on the weather etc.) A small instrument called a speculum will be put into the vagina to allow the smear taker to see the cervix. With a small brush a bit like a cotton bud, they’ll take a sample of the cells to send to the lab.

After the test

You should receive your results within a four-week period: If your test is normal, you will get a recommendation when your next smear test is due. If the smear test is abnormal, you’ll be given an appointment to visit one of the CervicalCheck colposcopy clinics, of which there are 15 around Ireland…often abnormal results turn out to be nothing at all.

If it’s a ‘high-grade’ abnormality, you’ll usually be seen within four weeks. Otherwise, you should be seen within eight weeks. If treatment is needed, most are done in the clinic under local anaesthetic. This process is very effective, reducing your risk of cervical cancer by 90%.

The HPV vaccination

Since 2010, there has also been a national programme to vaccinate girls aged 12 to 13 against human papilloma virus (HPV) (which causes cervical cancer). There is also currently a three-year catch-up campaign, which offers the HPV vaccine to girls between the ages of 13 and 18.

The vaccine used in the programme, protects against the two types of HPV that are responsible for about 70% of cervical cancer cases (HPV-16 and HPV-18). However, the vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV, so is not guaranteed to prevent cervical cancer though it does greatly reduce the chances. However, those who have had the HPV vaccine will still be encouraged to attend screenings from the age of 25.

Sound simple enough? Good. Now there’s no excuse.

For more information, and to check you're registered, head to cervicalcheck.ie.

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About the Author

Emily is our Digital Editor. She has three awesome nieces, and has accidentally worn the same outfit as them on at least one occasion. Emily likes making things, including hand-drawn cards, and a darn good chocolate cake. She still sounds very English, despite living in Dublin for the last nine years. More insight into the workings of her brain can be found on dancingcakesandsilence.blogspot.com.

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