Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that develops in a woman's cervix (the entrance to the womb from the vagina). It often has no symptoms in its early stages, but if you do have symptoms, the most common is unusual vaginal bleeding, which can occur after sex, in between periods or after the menopause.
Abnormal bleeding doesn't mean that you definitely have cervical cancer, but it should be investigated by your GP as soon as possible. If your GP thinks you might have cervical cancer, you should be referred to see a specialist within two weeks.
Six women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every week in Scotland, so it's really important to attend for your smear test when invited - it's the best way to protect yourself from the disease and find any changes to your cervix early.
Your smear test checks the cells from your cervix and is designed to pick up any changes so that they can be monitored or treated. Without treatment, the changes can sometimes develop into cervical cancer.
The earlier cervical cancer is found, the easier it is to treat and you're nine times more likely to survive it when it's found at an early stage.
All women in Scotland aged 25 to 49 are invited for a smear test every three years, while women aged 50 to 64 are invited every five years. Invites are sent through the post and shouldn't be ignored.
Cervical screening is NOT a test to find cancer. It is a screening test to detect changes to the cells of the cervix at an early stage. Having regular cervical screening offers the best protection against developing cervical cancer.
Pre-cancerous cell changes don't usually have any symptoms, so it's important to go for your smear test every time you're invited, even if you've had the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine.
The test only takes five minutes and is then sent to a lab for testing. The lab sends the results to your GP, who will get in touch with the result, usually within four weeks of having the test.
If you'd feel more comfortable with a female nurse or GP, be sure to mention this when you make your appointment. You could even take a friend or relative along if you'd prefer.
SIGNS TO LOOK OUT FOR
There are usually no symptoms with changes in cervical cells and sometimes there are no symptoms with early stage cervical cancer. Make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible if you notice any of the following symptoms:
- abnormal bleeding during or after sexual intercourse, or between periods
- post-menopausal bleeding if you are not on HRT or have stopped it for six weeks
- unusual and/or unpleasant vaginal discharge
- discomfort or pain during sex
- lower back pain.
There are many other conditions that could cause these symptoms, so while it's probably nothing to worry about, you should see your GP. Don't get scared, get checked.