Why you should
never miss a Pap test

Published: 14 Jun 2019

Cervical cancer is the most common form of cancer in women under 35. It is estimated that there will be 13,170 new cases of cervical cancer diagnosed in the US, and 4,250 women will die from the disease. That's 12 women every day!

Regular Pap tests (cervical screening) can prevent up to 75% of instances of cervical cancer. Despite this, many women are reluctant to have this test done with a quarter of women in the UK not responding to their screening invitation. 

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is a disease that occurs in the entrance to the womb (cervix), and can affect any woman who is, or has been, sexually active.  90% of cervical cancer cases are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) which is passed during unprotected sex.

The disease is more likely to develop in women who have HIV/AIDS, smoke, or have poor nutrition.  Most importantly though, it occurs more often in women who do not have regular smear tests/cervical screenings than those who do.

The incidence of this cancer has dropped by 50% between 1975 and 2014 thanks to increased screening programs.  The five-year survival rate for all women is around 67%, whereas when detected early, the figure is 92%, so catching it early is critical.  It is most commonly diagnosed in women between 35 and 44, with around 15% of cases in those over 65.

Cancer of the cervix often has no symptoms in its early stages (which is why screenings are so important). 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 you should visit your doctor for investigation as soon as possible.

What are pap tests/cervical screenings and why do I need to have them?

Pap tests are one of the most effective preventative measures against cervical cancer.  Cell samples are retrieved from the ‘transformation zone’ (where the ectocervical cells meet the endocervical cells) and then examined under a microscope to see if there are any abnormalities.  If there are, these abnormalities can be treated before they develop into cancer.

Smear/pap tests are also ideal at detecting cervical cancer early – a crucial factor when treating the disease where early detection often results in it being cured.

How often should I be screened?

Firstly, cervical screening should only take place from 21 years and up – as the causal factor is a sexually transmitted disease, pap tests below this age are often unnecessary.  Secondly, even if you have been vaccinated against HPV, you should still abide by the following recommendations.

Between 21 and 29, you should be screened once every 3 years.

Between 30 and 65, it’s recommended to be co-screened with an HPV test every 5 years (however, a pap test every 3 years is OK)

From 65 onwards, if you have had normal results from regular (one co-screening every 5 years or a pap test every 3 years) then you do not need to be tested again.  If you have had a history of cervical pre-cancer results then you should continue to be tested for at least 20 years after that diagnosis, even beyond 65)

If you have had a total hysterectomy (removal of uterus and cervix) for non-cervical cancer reasons, and have no history of cervical cancer/cervical pre-cancer, then you do not need to be tested.

So, if you haven’t been screened in the recent past, then get yourself down to your local doctor or screening facility.  Catching the disease early will give you a much better chance of avoiding complications as well as dreaded chemo or radiotherapy.

For more information, visit, or the NHS.

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