Cervical cancer is one of the easiest cancers to prevent – as long as the cell changes that cause it are detected early
Cervical screening (a smear test)
Having routine cervical screening tests is one of the most important things you can do to prevent or find cervical cancer early.
People who are aged 25 to 69 years of age and have a cervix (including transgender or non-binary people) and have ever been sexually active should have regular smear tests.
HPV virus is the main cause of cervical cancer
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).
This virus is very common and spread through close intimate/sexual contact. Often, people do not know they are infected by the HPV virus.
Most infections will clear up by themselves within a few months. A small number of women are infected with high-risk HPV and if this is not treated, can grow over several years into cervical cancer.
Screening finds HPV infection or precancerous cell changes caused by the virus that can be treated and cancer avoided.
A vaccine for HPV is available. The HPV vaccine is free for people aged between 9-26 years under the National Immunisation Schedule.
The HPV vaccine is very effective at protecting against the types of Human papillomaviruses (HPV) that cause cervical cancer.
The vaccine also protects against HPV types that cause other genital, anal, throat and mouth cancers in both males and females.
The HPV Gardasil® 9 vaccine is free for males and females aged between 9-26 years under the National Immunisation Schedule.
It is offered in two doses to primary school-aged children in year 8. It works best before any exposure to HPV (before any sexual contact).
If your child missed out on getting the vaccine at school, they can get it at their health centre.
When should my child get the HPV vaccine?
In most parts of Aotearoa, your child can receive the HPV vaccine in Year 8 at school. It works best for boys and girls when given around this age and can offer long-lasting protection.
Children or young adults under 27 years old who have not been vaccinated or missed their full dose should see their doctor for their free vaccine.
You may still benefit from getting the vaccine if you are aged 27 or over. It can be purchased at your family doctor or Family Planning Clinic.
Find out more:
The cervical screening test
The test checks the health of your cervix (the entrance to your uterus/womb) by looking for changes to the cells. It involves taking a small sample of cells from your cervix with a small, soft brush.
These cells are put into a special liquid and checked at a lab. Most people will receive a normal result (everything is fine). If everything is normal you will get a reminder in three years.
Cervical screens are usually every three years. After your first test, and if there have been more than 5 years between tests, you will be offered a repeat test in 12 months.
You should have a smear test if you:
- have a cervix
- Are 25 to 69 years old and have ever been sexually active (with males or females)
- whether or not you have been vaccinated for HPV
You may still need a test if you have had a hysterectomy - check with your doctor
You can have your test done by a doctor, nurse or trained smear-taker at:
- your usual local health centre
- community health service e.g. Pacific or Māori health centre
- sexual health service
- women’s health service
How much will a smear cost?
This depends on where you get your test. At your local health centre, you will be required to pay your usual GP fee or a practice nurse fee.
Some health services provide this test at low or no cost. You can phone and ask or check fees on their website.
Your smear taker will let you know your results. This usually takes about two weeks. It does not mean anything is wrong if it takes longer:
- a normal result - everything is fine. Have a repeat test in three years.
- an unsatisfactory test result: the lab was unable to properly test your sample. This can happen for different reasons and does not mean that anything is wrong. You will usually be asked to repeat your test in 12 months.
- an abnormal result means that you have unusual changes that are usually caused by the HPV virus. Often these changes will go away on their own. Sometimes these need to be treated so they don’t turn into cancer. You will usually be asked to have a repeat test in 12 months or referred to a specialist for further investigation and treatment.
Benefits and harms of cervical screening
The cervical screening test picks up most problems at an early stage. It has prevented many women from developing cervical cancer.
But it is not a perfect test. Some problems may be missed. It is important to have regular tests, so they can be picked up the next time.
Sometimes cervical tests find things that will go away by themselves and will not cause you any health problems. This may mean some more tests and cause you to worry unnecessarily.