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    Cervical screening, HPV and me

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    Cervical cancer affects around 3,200 women in the UK each year. In most cases, this type of cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). There are over 100 types of HPV and not all of them will cause problems. However, some high-risk types are linked with cancer as they can cause abnormal cells in the cervix. Regular cervical screening is an effective way to identify abnormal cells in the cervix early on. The HPV vaccine can also protect against the virus. 

    23rd-29th January is Cervical Cancer Prevention Week. We have collaborated with Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust to raise awareness of ways #WeCan work towards a future where cervical cancer is a thing of the past. Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is the UK’s leading cervical cancer charity, which aims to provide support and information to people affected by cervical cancer. 

    Samantha Dixon, Chief Executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust says:

    Cervical screening can help stop cervical cancer before it starts, so it's a really important test. There are many reasons going can be difficult, including fear, embarrassment or experience of trauma. It's really important every woman has the information and support they need to take up their invite.

    We surveyed 1,596 women to find out more about their understanding of HPV, cervical screening and their attitudes towards it. The data revealed that many women feel anxious at the thought of attending a cervical screening, so our aim is to support people through those feelings. We also bust HPV myths, in the interest of educating people on how the HPV vaccine helps prevent cervical cancer. 

    Where do women learn about cervical screening

    Introducing women to cervical screening 

    Cervical screening is a health test to check for or high-risk HPV that can cause cervical cells to become abnormal. If HPV is found, the lab will test the sample for cell changes. Despite its official name being cervical screening, our survey showed 55% of women still refer to it as a smear test. 

    The test was originally called a smear test because it referred to the old way the test was carried out. Cells from the cervix were smeared onto a glass slide to be checked. 

    Our survey data concluded that those aged 25-35 are more likely to refer to the test as cervical screening (45%) than any other age group. 37% of women feel the name ‘smear test’ is negative, while 9% say it makes them less willing to take it. 2% of women surveyed were less inclined to take the test due to the name smear test. This would equate to hundreds of thousands of women across the UK being unwilling to take it because of the name.

    Where do women find out about cervical screening?

    Following this, we wanted to discover where women learn about cervical screening. Survey data concluded that 33% of women first find out about cervical screening from their GP, 25% when they receive their cervical screening invitations, and 10% from their mother or a mother figure. 

    Of those who first learnt from female family members, 15% said their feelings and attitudes towards cervical screening were negative. 4 out of 5 women (80%) believe their female family members’ attitudes about cervical screening influenced their beliefs.

    According to survey data, cervical screening appointments are where women gain the most knowledge about cervical screening (44%). 43% of women gain the most knowledge from their GP and 16% from online resources. Just 13% of women said they gain the most knowledge from their mother or a mother figure, and 13% from other family members with a cervix. With social media becoming increasingly important, 10% of those aged 16-24 said they learn the most about cervical screening from influencers.

    What to expect from a cervical screening test

    This video explains what to expect from a cervical screening test, including screening results, how long the procedure takes and what happens afterwards. 

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      Young women and cervical screening

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      ​​​​​​​ Cervical screening and young women

      For many young women, the idea of attending a cervical screening can cause feelings of distress and worry. This may be due to a lack of knowledge about the subject, not knowing what to expect and concerns about body image. 

      Survey data concluded that younger women aged 16-24 are less confident in their knowledge of cervical screening, with almost 30% saying they are unsure. 18% of younger women surveyed said they first learnt about cervical screening from their mother, 15% during sex education at school, and 15% from other family members with a cervix. 

      Survey results showed that women aged 16-24 have gained the most knowledge about cervical screening from sex education at school (24%), from their mothers (23%) and from friends (20%). 10% of women aged 16-24 learn about cervical screening from influencers. Comparatively, women of an older demographic gain the most knowledge about cervical screening from cervical screening appointments (44%), their GP (43%) and online resources (16%). 

      Regarding anxious feelings about cervical screening, survey data concluded that 33% of women aged 16-24 feel apprehensive about attending their first screening. The biggest concern around attending a screening for those aged 16-24 is feeling self-conscious about their body (20%). This worrying figure demonstrates the importance young people place on their body image, and the necessity to reinforce how important getting a cervical screening is. Moreover, 18% said their biggest concerns are not knowing what to expect, feeling physically uncomfortable, or being in pain during the procedure

      The name smear test can also trigger feelings of unease among younger women. 47% of 16-24-year-olds refer to cervical screening as a smear test, and 50% state that this name carries a negative connotation. These results highlight the importance of raising awareness of cervical cancer early to ease anxiety. They also show the need to abolish the name smear test to reduce negative feelings. 

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        Anxiety and cervical screening

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        Many women feel worried about attending cervical screening. In fact, survey data revealed that 1 in 5 women have delayed cervical screening due to feeling anxious about the procedure. Additionally, 20% of parents have delayed cervical screening due to anxiety about the process.

        So, where do these anxious feelings stem from? 1 in 4 women are concerned with pain during the procedure and 21% think feeling self-conscious about their body is the most stressful aspect of a cervical screening test.

        Breathing techniques

        Breathing techniques are a great way to reduce anxious feelings before a cervical screening test. We have collaborated with Briony Gunson, a breathwork facilitator and mindset coach, to produce a short breathwork exercise to help those feeling anxious about their cervical screening test. 

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          Myth-busting and women’s knowledge of cervical screening

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          The anxiety around cervical screening can often lead to a lack of knowledge about the test. Survey data showed that 14% of women are not confident in their understanding of cervical screening. 16-24-year-olds are the least confident, with 28% not confident in their knowledge of cervical screening and 3% of women across the UK have never learnt about cervical screening.

          Top 10 smear test questions

          We also gathered survey data about how much people know about the facts of cervical screening. Results showed that 81% of women think cervical screening tests for cancer, when in fact, it tests for HPV. Results also revealed that 22% of women don’t know you can ask for extra lubrication during a cervical screening test which potentially is the reason why some women find the process uncomfortable. 

          35% of women wrongly think you can have a cervical screening test if you’re on your period, while 17% don’t know why the test is called a smear test. These results show we need to improve knowledge of the procedure. 

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            How often is a smear test

            In general, it is recommended that you have your first smear test at the age of 25. Women aged 25 to 49 years should have one every three years, and women aged 50 to 64 years should have one every five years. Women over 65 years old who continue to have negative results may stop scheduling cervical screening appointments.

            If you have tested positive for HPV, it is recommended to have more frequent tests to monitor the cells of the cervix. This is because changes in the cells may lead to cervical cancer if left untreated.

            The recommended frequency of cervical screening tests for women with HPV will depend on age, and other factors such as underlying health conditions or the type of HPV detected, so it’s always important to discuss with your healthcare provider based on your individual situation to develop your own schedule.

            Is a cervical screening test painful?

            While most women do not experience any pain during a cervical screening test, some women may feel some discomfort or pressure. If you experience pain during the test, you should let your nurse or doctor know so they can adjust their technique and make you more comfortable.

            There are many different physical and psychological reasons why a smear test might hurt or be very uncomfortable, such as having a condition like vulvodynia or endometriosis, or if you’ve been through menopause and you’re experiencing vaginal dryness. Some techniques that may help reduce discomfort during a cervical screening test include breathing exercises to help your body relax, , relaxing your muscles, putting the speculum in yourself, asking for more lubricant, and asking your healthcare provider to explain each step of the procedure as they go.

            If you have experienced sexual violence and find cervical screening appointments distressing and uncomfortable, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust website has support available.

            How long will the results of my cervical screening test take?

            On average, you should receive the results of your cervical screening test within two to three weeks of when it was taken. Normally these will be sent to you in the post, but you might be asked to call your GP surgery instead. If any abnormalities are detected, your healthcare provider will get in touch and recommend further testing or treatment.

            How long does a cervical screening test take?

            On average, a cervical screening test usually takes a few minutes to complete. However, the exact duration will depend on the specific procedures and techniques used by your healthcare provider.

            What is a cervical screening test?

            A cervical screening checks for abnormal cells on the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. The purpose of a smear test is to check the cervix for warning signs that point to an increased risk of cervical cancer. 

            The doctor or nurse will gently insert a tube-shaped device called a speculum into your vagina. They’ll then open the speculum to expand your vagina and insert a soft brush on a long stick, which they’ll use to brush away a few cells from your cervix.

            Do you bleed after a cervical screening test?

            While it is not unusual to experience light spotting or mild bleeding after a cervical screening test, it typically is very minor and does not last long. This can occur because the process of collecting the sample from the cervix can cause a small amount of irritation and discomfort, which may result in some light bleeding. A little bit of bleeding and cramping after a smear test is fairly common, as the cervix is sensitive and can be irritated during the procedure. However, the bleeding should be very light and should stop within a few hours.

            If you’re in a lot of pain, if you bleed more heavily (i.e. you’re soaking through a sanitary pad in one hour), or if the bleeding gets worse, you should contact your GP.

            What does a cervical screening test for?

            A cervical screening test checks for any changes or abnormalities in the cells of the cervix. The test is designed to detect abnormal cells that may develop into cervical cancer if left untreated. It does not test for cervical cancer directly, but it can help identify changes in the cells of the cervix that may indicate a risk for developing cervical cancer.

            Cervical screening plan

            To help reduce uncertainty around cervical screening, we’ve created a downloadable screening plan which women can take to their appointment. This plan highlights requirements that some women may otherwise be embarrassed to ask for. It can also help to articulate requirements if anxiety becomes an obstacle.  

            Cervical screening plan
            Cervical screening plan
            Cervical screening plan
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              Myth-busting and women’s knowledge of HPV

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              The lack of knowledge surrounding cervical screening can in turn result in limited knowledge of HPV. Survey results concluded that 47% of women are not confident in their understanding of HPV, while the 16-24 age group is the most confident regarding knowledge of HPV. What’s more, 41% of women are not aware that a cervical screening sample is checked for some types of high-risk HPV. 

              Top 10 HPV questions

              We asked the women surveyed how much they knew about HPV. The results concluded that 24% of women don’t know that there is a vaccine for HPV, which can reduce your risk of cervical cancer. While 2 in 5 of women don’t know that the vaccine is offered to boys and girls aged 12-13 on the NHS and can even be accessed privately.. 

              Reassuringly, 83% of women know that HPV infection can lead to cervical cancer. In comparison, 28% of women think HPV has symptoms when it is largely symptomless

              Moreover, 30% of women think HPV isn’t transmitted through sex, and 20% of women don’t know HPV can lie dormant in the body for up to 20 years. These results show that fears about cervical screening may prevent women from gaining knowledge of HPV. We must tackle these worries so that women feel confident enough to go for their screening and learn more about HPV.  

              HPV vaccine 

              HPV vaccine info

              The HPV vaccine protects you again the high-risk strains of HPV most likely to cause cancer and genital warts. However, survey data concluded a lack of knowledge about the vaccine. 

              Results showed that 16% of women don’t know the HPV vaccine exists and that it can help reduce the risk of getting cervical cancer. Only 1 in 4 women surveyed have received the HPV vaccine. 15% of women said that school is the most common place to receive the vaccine. However, 1 in 4 women aged 16-24 haven’t had the HPV vaccine, despite being offered in schools.

              So, what can we do to boost awareness of the HPV vaccine? 1 in 3 women want to know more about the vaccine, as they have not had it. 32% state being more educated on HPV would make them consider getting the HPV vaccine. These results highlight the need to educate women on the HPV vaccine, so they feel more confident in their knowledge. 

              Learn more about the HPV vaccine and book yours today


              LloydsPharmacy Online Doctors surveyed 1,596 women to identify their understanding of Cervical Screening, HPV and their thoughts towards the screening test



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