Cervical cancer is one of the easiest cancers to detect and prevent, as long as women and their whānau have regular cervical smears.
The good news? Smear tests are available for free at over 7,300 medical facilities all over Aotearoa. With that in mind, the more Kiwis who know about cervical cancer and cervical smears the better - so here’s a quick summary of everything you need to know to protect yourself and your whānau.
What is cervical cancer and who’s at risk?
Cervical cancer is a cancer that starts in the lining of the cervix, usually caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). It occurs when the cell changes caused by HPV develop into cancer, usually over a long period of around ten years.
Importantly, cell changes don’t usually cause any symptoms but the symptoms outlined here can be a warning sign and should be checked out by your GP.
If you are a women, trans or nonbinary person with a cervix aged between 25 and 69 who’s ever been sexually active you should have regular smear tests to screen for cervical cancer (even if you are immunised against HPV or are no longer sexually active).
Why are cervical smears so important?
Around 80 percent of people who are sexually active will have an HPV infection at some stage in their lives. Luckily, it’s easy to protect yourself. Cervical cancer develops very slowly, so regular smear tests are an easy way to discover cell changes caused by HPV and treat them early before they mutate into potentially life-threatening cancers.
There’s no doubt that smear tests save lives. In fact, since national screening began in 1990 the number of people who die of cervical cancer has decreased by nearly 66% (National Screening Unit).
What happens if I get an abnormal result?
Receiving an abnormal result from a smear test can be highly distressing, but don’t worry - women who are treated for abnormal cells are unlikely to develop cervical cancer in the future. In fact, early treatment is successful 95% of the time (Time to Screen).
You’ll simply need to make an appointment with the colposcopy staff at your local medical facility to have the abnormal tissues removed. This is a very simple, low risk procedure, usually done under local anaesthetic.
Ask the staff at your GP or clinic if you have any questions or concerns and feel free to bring a family member or support person if you’re feeling nervous.
What’s changing in 2023?
The current testing method is a cytology or smear test and it’s saved thousands of lives in New Zealand. However, recent evidence has shown that HPV primary screening is a more effective, less invasive testing method so New Zealand is switching from July 2023.
The new HPV test has a couple of significant benefits:
It provides a warning signal of cervical cancer that can be detected much earlier.
It includes the option for self-testing via vaginal swab. This method is much less invasive making screening easier and less uncomfortable.
The testing window will be extended from 3-5 years as the new test is more effective at picking up early warning signs.
While the new testing program may be better, it’s important that you continue with your screens as scheduled rather than waiting for July 2023.
Do you have questions about cervical screening? Are you due for a screen? Check out the Time to Screen website for more information or click here to find out where to go to get your next screen.
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