Cervical screening is not a test for cancer. It is a method of preventing cancer by detecting and treating early abnormalities which, if left untreated, could lead to cancer in a woman’s cervix (the neck of the womb). Out of 100 women who have cervical screening, about 6 will have abnormal cells in their sample. (NHS Cervical Screening leaflet, ‘Helping you decide’, May 2017)
Nearly all abnormal results show no more than small changes in cells. Abnormal changes (also called dyskaryosis or dysplasia) may be mild, moderate or severe. Most mild changes go back to normal on their own, but treatment may be needed if the changes are moderate or severe. After a colposcopy, abnormal changes may also be called CIN1 (mild cell changes), CIN2 (moderate cell changes) or CIN3 (severe cell changes). This is just another way of saying mild, moderate and severe (see ‘What is CIN?‘).
A doctor explains what a cervical screening test can show.
Many of the women we interviewed turned out to have abnormal changes after routine cervical screening. Most were told by letter, and that they would need a colposcopy examination at hospital. This is a detailed examination of the cervix (see ‘The colposcopy examination‘). Some said they were also told that they had CIN3, while others knew only that they had abnormal changes that needed further investigation. Instead of a letter, a few women received a phone call from their GP, which worried them because they felt their doctor would not have phoned if it hadn’t been serious.
Susan got a letter telling her she had severe dyskaryosis or CIN3. Shed had repeat cervical…
Jane worried when her GP phoned to tell her she needed further investigations, but felt that she…
Some women had more than one abnormal cervical screening test (smear) result before they were referred to a colposcopy clinic. In many cases, abnormal cell changes return to normal by themselves. The women we interviewed were asked to return for a repeat test within six months. Some women found this a worrying time, though one woman said that, because she’d had it explained, she wasn’t worried until she was actually referred to a colposcopy clinic.
Since April 2011, the NHS Cervical Screening Programme has been introducing a testing system called the ‘HPV triage’, so if a woman had a screening result that shows abnormal cell changes the sample is automatically tested for the HPV virus.
If you have an HPV infection, you will be offered another test (called a colposcopy) to check your cervix more closely. (NHS Cervical Screening leaflet, ‘Helping you decide’, May 2017)
For more information on colposcopies see our topic on ‘The colposcopy examination‘.
If the test comes back and it does not show any HPV virus (negative result) you will return to normal regular screening every 3–5 years depending on your age.
‘HPV triage’ programme is currently operating in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but not in Scotland.
In England, Northern Ireland and Wales all women between the ages of 25 and 49 are eligible for a free cervical screening test every 3 years. Women aged 50–64 are eligible for a free cervical screening test every 5 years. Women living in Scotland between the ages of 20 and 60 are invited for a test every 3 years.
Sam had abnormal results several times and found this very worrying. Waiting for results was…
Lauren went for repeat tests for about eighteen months. She wasnt worried until her doctor told…
Some of the women we spoke to had not been for routine cervical screening but had had symptoms, such as bleeding between periods or after sex, and had had a cervical screening test (smear) after visiting their GP. A few had pain during sex, so they felt that something could be wrong. Other women had bladder problems, very heavy periods or irregular periods. Some of them were surprised when they were referred to hospital because, during their screening test, they were told that the changes looked like an infection or cervical erosion.
A doctor explains what cervical erosion is.
Michelle saw her GP because she had bleeding between periods. He thought it was cervical erosion…
A few of the women we interviewed had gone to see their GP for other reasons and had a cervical screening test (smear) while they were there. Maria had been planning to start a family so went to the GP for a general check-up.
Pam said she went to visit her GP because she was worried she might have caught a sexually transmitted infection.
Marjory, who’d had CIN3 over 20 years ago, said that she only went for cervical screening after health advice from a psychic medium.
When Pams ex-boyfriend cheated on her, she was worried she might have caught a sexually…
Marjorys mother died of cancer. A psychic medium advised her, and she went for cervical…
Receiving an abnormal test result can cause shock and anxiety, and waiting for the colposcopy appointment can be difficult (see ‘Feelings about abnormal results‘).
More experiences of abnormal results can be found on our Cervical screening section.