Benefits and harms of cervical screening
It’s your choice whether or not to join the National Cervical Screening Programme and have regular smear tests to check for cervical changes. To help you decide, here are the benefits and harms.
Regular cervical screening saves lives
Cervical screening saves lives by finding cell changes that have developed on the cervix. These cell changes can be treated before cancer develops. It is important to follow any recommendations for repeat tests and treatment.
Regular cervical screening is important as one test won’t always detect developing cell changes. All women who are sexually active should be screened every three years.
The potential for less treatment
The earlier cell changes are detected, the better. Treating cell changes when are small means less tissue needs to be removed, and treating changes before they have developed into cancer is also better. Treatment involves removing the affected tissue in the cervix by a colposcopist who specialises in the assessment and treatment of abnormal cells. An early small cancer is much easier to treat than a large invasive cancer that may have spread outside the cervix.
Risks and harms
Some cell changes may not harm you
Only some women with high-grade cervical cell changes will develop cervical cancer if they are not treated. However, it is not possible to tell who will go on to develop cancer and who won’t, so all women with high-grade cell changes are treated to make sure the abnormal cells are removed. This means that some women will be treated who would have been fine without treatment.
Cervical screening doesn’t find all cancers
The National Cervical Screening Programme works hard to ensure the programme is as safe as possible for women who are enrolled. Most women who develop cervical cancer in New Zealand have not been screened at all or have not had regular screening tests. Regular screening increases the chance of early detection.
Sometimes the cell changes are not present or are not detected in the sample taken, and occasionally the cancer develops rapidly between screening tests.
Pain and worry
Having a cervical sample taken can be uncomfortable or even painful for some women, and receiving an abnormal smear result can be a source of worry and anxiety. It is important to talk to your smear taker about how you’re feeling. Remember, you can always take a support person with you when you have your sample taken, and you have a choice who takes your test.
The risks of colposcopy treatment
In women of child-bearing age, treatment for cervical abnormalities does not affect the chance of getting pregnant, although studies suggest that treatment can be associated with an increased risk of pre-term labour or miscarriage in the second trimester of pregnancy. This risk is small, but the benefits of early treatment of cell changes and prevention of cervical cancer far outweighs the risks. Treatment is not undertaken unless it’s considered absolutely necessary.