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Cervical Screening: What do your results mean?

It’s natural to feel a little nervous about your cervical screening results, especially if you’re unsure of what they really mean.

From December 1st 2017, the Cervical Screening Test replaced the Pap Smear as the method screen and identify women at higher risk of cervical cancer. Unlike a pap smear, the cervical screening test looks for the presence of the human papillomavirus (HPV); the cause of cervical cancer in 99% of cases.

The Cervical Screening Test is more effective than the traditional pap smear as it looks for signs of HPV. This test is more effective as HPV causes over 99% of cervical cancer, so by testing for HPV the test can identify which women are more at risk of developing cervical cancer. Abnormal cells in the cervix can develop overtime after having a persistent HPV infection and this test can detect the presence of the infection long before any cellular changes have occurred. The Cervical Screening Test is expected to reduce the incidence of cervical cancer by 20%, so it’s important that you attend.

MORE: Are you guilty of skipping your cervical screening?

What possible results could I receive for the Cervical Screening Test?

Possible results from your Cervical Screening Test include:

  • Return to screen in five years
  • Unsatisfactory result
  • Repeat the test in 12 months
  • Refer to specialist

I’ve been asked to return to screen in five years, what does this mean?

This means that your cervical screening test has indicated you do not have HPV. Your next test will be due in 5 years. You will receive a reminder from the National Cervical Screening Program when this is due.

If you notice any symptoms between screens including unusual vaginal bleeding, discharge or pain, make sure you contact your doctor instead of just waiting for your next screen.

My result is ‘unsatisfactory’, why is this?

This doesn’t necessarily mean that there is anything wrong. This simply means your sample could not be tested properly. You will be asked to repeat the test in 6-12 weeks as this allows time for the cells in your cervix to renew. If you opted for self-collection you may need to repeat the screening with the help of a health professional rather than self-collecting again.

I’ve tested positive for HPV, what now?

First things first, don’t panic. Not all HPV infections lead to cervical cancer. In fact it usually takes 10 – 15 years for HPV to develop into cervical cancer. If caught early, your doctor can monitor the infection and intervene if there are any changes to cells in your cervix.
For most women the virus clears naturally in one to two years. It’s when the infection hangs around longer that you could find yourself at risk.

You might be asked to come back for a repeat Cervical Screening Test in 12 months or you might be referred to a specialist for further testing.

I’ve been told to return in 12 months, why is this?

This result indicates that you have an HPV infection that is likely to clear up by itself within the next 12 months. You have been asked to return to check that the infection has cleared up. If it has you will be asked to return in 5 years as normal.

If your 12 month screening shows that you still have HPV you may be referred to a specialist.

I was immediately referred to a specialist – should I be worried?

Don’t panic – this result does not mean you have cancer.
What this means is that your test has indicated that there are some cell changes or that you have a high risk HPV infection. It might also mean that you need to undergo further testing such as a colposcopy.

That doesn’t sound good – what’s that?

Not as scary as it sounds! A colposcopy is a way to get a close up look at your cervix. It’s not dissimilar to a pap smear but you will also have a special liquid put on your cervix to highlight any abnormal areas and the specialist will look at this areas carefully through a colposcope- sort of like a pair of binoculars- and whilst you might experience some discomfort, it’s not a painful procedure.

Will I have to undergo further treatment?

During your colposcopy, if areas of your cervix appear abnormal, the specialist may take a biopsy- a small sample of tissue for testing. This can sometimes cause some pain and your specialist will be able to advise you on activities to avoid following the procedure e.g. vigorous exercise.

If abnormality is detected you may need further treatment such as a loop excision, laser treatment or a cone biopsy.

  • Loop Excision
    Also known as LLETZ (large loop excision of trasnformationa zone) or LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure)
    Treatment time: 15 – 30 mins
    Method: Abnormal cells, also known as the transformational zone, are removed from your cervix with a loop of wire carrying an electrical current. This is generally conducted in theatre so a day stay in hospital may be necessary.
    Recovery: You may experience some cramping and bleeding which should ease after 2 weeks. You should not have sex or use tampons for 4 – 6 weeks.
  • Laser
    Treatment time: 10 – 15 mins
    Method: Abnormal cells are removed using heat from a laser beam. This usually occurs in theatre so a day stay in hospital may be necessary.
    Recovery: Most women can return to their normal activities within 2 – 3 days.
  • Cone biopsy
    Treatment time: 15 – 30 mins
    Method: A minor operation to remove a cone-shaped section of the cervix containing abnormal cells. A day or overnight stay in hospital may be necessary.
    Recovery: You should avoid doing anything strenuous for about 3 weeks and you should not have sex or use tampons for 4 – 6 weeks.

If you need to undergo further treatment your doctor will be able to talk you through the options. Don’t be afraid to ask plenty of questions. If you’re not sure what to ask take a look at our guide on what to ask your doctor.

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