Many women, particularly those who have survived sexual abuse, are scared of being tested. But there are ways to change this, from asking for a smaller speculum to singing Frozen hits.
The procedure gathers cells from your cervix, a narrow “neck” that joins the uterus to the top of the vagina, which are then screened. But it is better known as a smear test because cells that are removed from your cervix with the help of a speculum (a device that keeps the vaginal walls open) and a brush are then smeared on to a slide for analysis. Abnormal cells sometimes require further testing because they may indicate cervical cancer, the best-known gynaecological cancer and, in the UK, the most common cancer in women under 35.
It is also one of the most preventable cancers – if women go for smear tests. Screening is estimated to save 5,000 lives a year. If you are uncomfortable with the procedure, You can ask to insert the speculum yourself. You can ask for a smaller speculum. You can bring a friend to hold your hand. You can ask for an appointment before the scan just to talk about what will happen.
Cervical cancer does not typically cause noticeable symptoms in the early stages of the disease. Routine Pap screening is important to check for abnormal cells in the cervix, so they can be monitored and treated as early as possible. Most women are advised to get a Pap test starting at age 21.
The Pap test is one of the most reliable and effective cancer screening methods available, and women should have yearly exams by an OB-GYN. However, the Pap test may not detect some cases of abnormal cells in the cervix. The HPV test screens women for the high-risk HPV strains that may lead to cervical cancer. It is approved for women over age 30.
Although screening methods are not 100 percent accurate, these tests are often an effective method for detecting cervical cancer in the early stages when it is still highly treatable. Talk with your doctor about which type of cervical cancer screening is right for you.
Early warning signs of cervical cancer
When present, common symptoms of cancer that develops in the cervix may include vaginal bleeding, including bleeding between periods, after sexual intercourse or post-menopausal bleeding; unusual vaginal discharge, which may be watery, pink or foul-smelling; and pelvic pain.
All of these cervical cancer symptoms should be discussed with your doctor.
Signs of advanced cervical cancer
Cervical cancer may spread (metastasize) within the pelvis, to the lymph nodes or elsewhere in the body. Signs of advanced cervical cancer include:
- Weight loss
- Back pain
- Leg pain or swelling
- Leakage of urine or feces from the vagina
- Bone fractures