Cervical screening test is designed to prevent cancer

Irish News feature – Cervical Screening – Dr Tracy Owen, Consultant in Public Health Medicine at the PHA:

Worry can put women off attending but it is important to come when invited: the test is usually carried out by the nurse in your GP practice and takes around 10 minutes
Dr Tracey Owen

EACH year in Northern Ireland, around 100 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer. To help prevent cervical cancer and reduce this number, screening is offered to women aged 25-49 every three years, and every five years for women aged 50-64.

Women often don't realise that the cervical screening test is mainly designed to prevent cancer from developing. It aims to identify early changes in the cells lining the cervix that can later progress to cancer if they are not treated.

You will feel well and won't have any symptoms with these cell changes, so if you don't attend for regular screening tests, this opportunity to help prevent yourself from developing cervical cancer is missed.

Understandably many women will feel nervous about going for their screening test, especially if it is their first time. They may be worried about the actual process of having the test, as well as the results. These worries can put some women off attending but as this is one of the few cancers that is preventable, it is important for women to get screened when they are invited to do so.

A lot of the time women are worried about the unknown, so it can help to be as informed as possible about what a cervical screening test entails. It is usually carried out by the nurse in your GP practice and it should only take around 10 minutes. Before the procedure starts the nurse will explain what is going to happen and answer any questions or concerns you may have. The nurse will use a special brush to collect a sample of cells from the surface of the cervix, which is then sent for testing.

If you have been invited for the first time, or haven't been before, you might not be sure of what to expect. To help with this, we have produced an information video following a woman through the screening process. This shows how straightforward the process is, and will hopefully dispel any concerns and anxiety that you may have.

The video can be viewed at It covers the whole process of screening – from receiving the invitation letter to getting the results.

The best way of significantly reducing your risk of developing cervical cancer is to attend for screening each time you receive your invitation. It is estimated that in a well-screened population, four out of five cervical cancers can be prevented.

I would strongly encourage all women, particularly those who have just been invited for screening for the first time, to see it as a positive step in looking after their health.

For more information visit the PHA's Be Cancer Aware website at which provides information about cancer signs and symptoms, explains what to do if you are concerned, and signposts to recommended sources of support or further information. For more information on the Northern Ireland Cancer Screening Programmes visit

:: Dr Tracy Owen is consultant in public health medicine at the PHA.


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