Screening is vital in the war against killer cervical cancer – expert reveals the importance of regular health checks

Sarah Gull, a consultant gynaecologist at BMI St Edmunds Hospital

Sarah Gull, a consultant gynaecologist at BMI St Edmunds Hospital - Credit: Archant

In the last year there have been changes in the way cervical smears are reported.

As well as looking at the cells on a smear test, samples showing minor abnormalities are now also tested for the human papilloma virus (HPV).

Sarah Gull, a consultant gynaecologist at BMI St Edmunds Hospital, looks at the changes and also at the importance of women making sure they are screened regularly.

“As well as looking at the cells on a smear test, samples showing minor abnormalities are now also tested for the human papilloma virus (HPV) and, if detected, the women are referred directly to a gynaecologist for further investigation,” she said.

“This virus is thought to be the cause of more severe abnormalities which, if not treated, can develop into cancer of the cervix.

“The new procedure has led to much quicker assessment of patients whose smear tests show minor changes. It also means that, where the virus is not detected, patients can be reassured that they are at very low risk of having or developing problems.

“Cervical smears following treatment are also tested for the virus as part of a ‘test-of-cure’ programme - again, if they are negative for HPV then frequent repeat smears are no longer required.

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“This is a definite improvement for women, as it is about trying to recognise those at greater risk of developing serious problems, and reassuring those whose risk is low.

“The programme has also been extended this year to include women who were previously advised to have annual smears after treatment. Eventually this means that fewer smears will be needed overall, and the time taken to make a more accurate diagnosis in women where the virus is detected, will be reduced.

“But does this mean that fewer women will need to be referred to colposcopy clinics, where the cervix is examined with a microscope? Unfortunately not.

“At the moment our colposcopy clinics are busier than ever, with women where the virus has been detected. In time things should improve, however – particularly when the effects of the HPV vaccination programme start to take effect from around 2016.

“For many a cervical smear test could mean the difference between life and death, yet recent figures show that 20% of women still do not attend their cervical screening.

“It is vitally important that women in the region to make sure they are up to date with their test.

“Cervical cancer is a preventable disease. The signs that it may develop can be often be spotted early and it can be treated before it even fully starts but despite this around 750 women each year in England die of cervical cancer.

“Many of those who develop the disease have not been screened regularly and the single biggest risk factor for developing cervical cancer is not regularly having a cervical screen.

“The routine of attending a cervical screening should be an important part of every woman’s health regime and yet, as the latest figures show, for many women the message just isn’t getting through.”

Do you have a health question you would like answered by an expert? Email your queries to stedmunds@bmihealthcare.co.uk

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