Cervical Screening Program (previously Pap Smear Test)

Why screening is important

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. Most cervical cancers occur in women who have never screened or do not screen regularly. Having regular screening tests is the best way to protect yourself. The test detects the presence of HPV so that it can be monitored or investigated further if needed.

Since the program began in 1991, the number of women developing cervical cancer has decreased significantly.

The National Cervical Screening Program (NCSP) aim is to reduce the impact of cervical cancer.

Cervical screening is a straightforward test performed by your doctor, nurse or health worker. It checks for the presence of HPV – a virus that can cause cervical cancer.

Cervical screening does not check for, or prevent, other cancers such as ovarian or endometrial cancer.

Understanding the new cervical screening test

Cervical cancer testing in Australia is changing. The traditional pap smear is slowly being replaced. The new screening process looks for cell changes and tests for the human papillomavirus (HPV) too. HPV is what causes cell changes that result in cervical cancer.

If you are a woman between the ages of 25 and 74, you should be screened for cervical cancer every 5 years. It is recommended to schedule your first screening 2 years after your last pap smear.

Cervical screening tests are quick and simple. To test for abnormalities, a group of cells is extracted from the cervix and sent to a lab. The cervix is located at the opening of the uterus and is the top of your vagina.

The reason why this test is replacing pap smears is that it’s more accurate at detecting early-stage HPV. By picking up on HPV earlier, the infection and can be monitored more closely. It also means that your healthcare provider can take action before it turns into life-threatening cancer.

What to expect during a screening test

If you’ve had a pap smear before, the test will feel very much the same. Here is what you can expect during your appointment:

  • Your doctor will take you to an examination room where you will be asked to remove your clothing from the waist down and lie on a bed.
  • A speculum is gently placed in the entrance of the vagina in order for your doctor to see the cervix.
  • A small brush is used to remove cells from the cervix. This might feel slightly uncomfortable but should not be painful.

These cells are sent to a lab for testing. Your doctor will be in touch regarding your results.

How much does a cervical cancer screening cost?

There is a private consultation fee however a Medicare rebate is available. If you have any questions regarding the cost of this procedure, please contact us.

How does a cervical screening test differ from a pap smear?

The way that a pap smear and cervical screening test is performed is identical. However, a pap smear only looks for cell changes within the cervix. The new screening test looks for both cell changes and HPV. By picking up on HPV before it can turn into cancer cells, treatment is easier and more effective. It can take up to 15 years for HPV to change the cervical cells. By scheduling a screening test every 5 years, your healthcare practitioner can keep a close eye on any changes.

Should you have a Cervical Screening Test?

You are eligible for a subsidised Cervical Screening Test if you are:

  • aged between 25 and 74
  • sexually active or ever have been
  • a woman or person with a cervix.

It makes no difference if you:

  • are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or straight
  • have had the HPV vaccination or not
  • are no longer sexually active
  • have been through menopause
  • have been with only one sexual partner
  • have experienced traditional cutting or circumcision
  • have had a baby
  • are pregnant (ensure to let your health care professional know).

If you have had a full or partial hysterectomy, please check with your doctor about screening.

You are eligible to have your first test when you turn 25 or 2 years after your last Pap test. Cervical screening occurs every 5 years after that.

If you’re outside the target age range

Under 25
Routine screening starts at age 25. There’s no need to have a cervical screen before then. This is because there are common infections or abnormalities that usually go away by themselves before you’re 25. Cervical cancer is also rare in this age group. Starting at age 25 means we prevent a lot of unnecessary tests and treatment.

Of course, if you’ve already had a test and had an abnormal result, keep following your doctor’s advice. If you have any of the symptoms below, talk to your doctor, nurse or health worker.

75 or over
If you’re 75 or over you can still ask to have a subsidised Cervical Screening Test – talk to your doctor, nurse or health worker.

What can I expect in terms of my screening results?

We will be in touch directly to talk you through your results. If an abnormality is identified, further testing will be necessary. Most patients will need to wait several weeks to receive their results. However, if your doctor feels your testing needs to be prioritised, you will receive your results sooner. It’s important to note that an abnormal result doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cancer. In many instances, it might just be an HPV infection that needs to be treated.

Do I still need to be screened if I received the HPV vaccine?

Yes, you do. The HPV vaccine will protect you against HPV but not all types that are linked to cervical cancer. Regular screening is still highly recommended.

See your doctor, nurse or health worker as soon as possible if you:

  • have abnormal vaginal bleeding or unusual discharge
  • experience pain during sex
  • have an unexplained, persistent vaginal discharge.
5 female specialist obstetricians, O&GCG Melbourne, Dr Jean Wong, Dr Leah Xu, Dr Natalia Khomko, Dr Perri Dyson and Dr Robin Thurman

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