Spotlight on your cervix! What is cervical screening and do lesbian and bi women need to bother?

Publish Date: 09/06/2014

This week (8th – 14th June) is Cervical Screening Awareness Week, an annual initiative aimed at raising awareness of cervical screening and encouraging women to get regular screens. But what is cervical screening? And why should we bother?

Cervical screening – what is it?

The cervix is located at the top of the vagina and forms the opening into the uterus (or womb). A cervical screen (or smear test, as it is more commonly known) is a routine test to check for abnormal cells in the cervix. If left untreated these cells could eventually become cancerous. Because it is linked to cancer, many people think that cervical screening is a test for cancer but it’s not – regular cervical screening should ensure that abnormal cells are found BEFORE cancer develops so they can be treated. 

In England, all women aged between 25-64 are invited for regular cervical screening – once every 3 years up to age 49 and once every 5 years from 50-64. If you don’t have a cervix (for example if you’ve had a hysterectomy or if you’re a trans woman) you won’t need screening but you may still get an invitation. Trans men who have received a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) may not get invited for cervical screening, but if you still have a cervix you should have regular screening – find out more here.

The screen or smear test usually takes around five minutes and is carried out by a trained nurse or doctor, usually at your GP surgery. This page gives a good description of what happens during the test.Some women may feel discomfort but the test shouldn’t be really painful so if you do experience pain let the nurse or doctor know straight away.

How is cervical screening linked to HPV? And what is HPV anyway?

HPV (or Human Papilloma Viruses) are a very common group of viruses that affect the skin and the moist membranes that line parts of the body. There are over 100 different types of HPV, each of which has a different number. HPV is common. Most people have one or more strains of the virus at some time in their lives. For most people it causes no symptoms and goes away on its own.

However, some types of HPV are linked to the changes in cells which can lead to cervical cancer – these are known as ‘high risk strains’. Almost all cases of cervical cancer are linked to HPV, but most people who are infected with ‘high risk’ HPV will not go on to develop cervical cancer. No-one knows exactly what causes HPV in some people to lead to cancer, but being a smoker does increase the risk that this will happen.

The HPV strains that can lead to cervical cancer are transmitted through sexual activity but they are very common. It’s estimated that 50% of people will have been infected with at least one strain of HPV within two years of becoming sexually active.

In the past, it was assumed that, if a woman had never had sex with a man, she could not have contracted HPV and therefore would not need cervical screening. This assumption was wrong – HPV can be passed on via sex between women. So, if you have a cervix and are or have ever been sexually active you should have regular cervical screening.

There is now a vaccination against some forms of HPV, which is given to young women at around age 12 (to be effective the vaccination needs to be given before someone becomes sexually active). This vaccination offers protection against the strains of HPV which most commonly cause cervical cancer but it cannot protect against all strains of HPV so even if you’ve been vaccinated you should still have regular cervical screening. 

Want to know more? Our ‘Are You Ready For Your Screen Test?’ booklet gives lots of important info about cervical screening. Download it here, or email women@lgf.org.ukand we’ll post you out a copy.      

Read lesbian radio presenter Vicki Blight-Pitt’s experience of cervical screening and why it’s so important for all women to be screened.

Visit www.lgf.org.uk/screeningfor more info on cervical screening.

Jo’s Trust is the only UK charity dedicated to cervical abnormalities and cervical cancer. Their website is full of information and support – go to www.jostrust.org.uk