Abnormal cervical screening result — what's next?

If you have received an abnormal cervical screening result you may be feeling anxious or have questions. 

A cervical screening is not a test for cancer. It’s used as a preventive measure against cancer and tests for human papillomavirus (HPV). One in 20 women receives an abnormal result on their cervical smear test but this doesn’t necessarily mean there is a serious issue.

What is an abnormal cervical smear test?

There are four possible results you can receive from a cervical smear screening. 

A ‘negative result’ indicates that no changes were found in the sample of cells taken from your cervix, you tested negative for HPV and your cervix is healthy.  Changes in the cells of your cervix can sometimes cause cells to become cancerous.

An ‘unclear result’ means the cervical screening will need to be repeated. This is not a cause for alarm, it’s just that a clear result was not possible for such reasons as:

  • not enough cells were harvested to complete the test accurately
  • you were on your period
  • you had an infection  

A ‘mixed result’ means you tested positive for HPV but no abnormal cells were detected. You will therefore need to have another smear test sooner than three years, usually in one year so your nurse can keep a closer eye on whether any abnormal cells develop. 

A ‘positive result’ indicates that abnormal cells were found and you tested positive for HPV. This result does not mean that you have cancer, but that the test revealed some changes to the cells from your cervix, which need further investigation and potentially treatment. 

The importance of regular cervical screening

Cervical screening is a fast, effective way to ensure that there are no precancerous or cancerous cells detected in your cervix. If they are detected, treatment can be carried out. It is important that you are regularly screened so that any changes to the cells in your cervix can be detected early on. This ensures that precancerous cells can be removed before they develop into cancer. Each year, 2,000 women’s lives are saved in the UK alone thanks to cervical screening.

You have received abnormal cervical test results — what next?

It can be upsetting to receive such results but this does not necessarily mean that you have precancerous cells. Sometimes, the cells return to normal on their own, but in other cases, they will need to be removed so that they can’t become cancerous. 

The staff at Spire Healthcare are always on hand to assist with any questions you may have.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

In the very early stages of cervical cancer there are often no symptoms at all, but symptoms that may occur include:

  • Back pain in your lower back or stomach pain
  • Bleeding after sex, douching or a gynaecological examination, bleeding in between periods, or bleeding after menopause (when periods have stopped)
  • Discomfort during sex
  • Increased vaginal discharge
  • Longer, heavier periods than usual
  • Repeated urine infections

If you are having any of these symptoms, visit your doctor to discuss them and to arrange a cervical screening. While these symptoms can often indicate other health conditions, it is best to get them checked.

Woman suffering from severe stomach pain

What is a colposcopy?

If you have received an abnormal test result you will be asked to attend a colposcopy. Similar to a cervical screening, a colposcopy is an examination of your cervix to confirm you have abnormal cells and determine whether you will need treatment.

You will be asked to remove your clothing from the waist down and will be provided with a paper sheet to cover yourself. You will be asked to lie down on your back on an examination bed and to bend your knees, put your feet together and let your legs fall open. Some clinics may have leg rests.

Just as in the smear test, the doctor will gently insert a speculum (a plastic, spoon-shaped, hollow tool) into your vagina and carefully open it so they can get a clear view of your cervix.

This may cause some discomfort, so it’s useful to practice some deep breathing to encourage your body to relax.

During your procedure, your doctor will place some liquid on your cervix and use a microscope with a light that will highlight any abnormal cells. The microscope will not be inserted into your vagina.

A small sample (biopsy) will be collected for further examination in a laboratory.

Having treatment for abnormal cervical cells

Once abnormal cells have been found in your cervix, a team of specialists — your multidisciplinary team — will discuss the most appropriate type of treatment for you. The treatment they choose will be based on some of the following factors:

  • If the abnormal cells are precancerous or cancerous and if so, what stage the cancer is at
  • Whether you are post-menopausal
  • Your age and general health

The usual treatment for precancerous cells and early-stage cancers is outpatient surgery to remove the precancerous or cancerous cells.

What happens after treatment for abnormal cervical cells?

After you’ve had a colposcopy, you may have the following treatments:

  • Cone biopsy — a cone-shaped sample of tissue, containing the abnormal cells, is removed from your cervix
  • Large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ) — abnormal cells are removed using a heated wire

It isn’t unusual to feel a little unsteady for a few days afterwards. So you will need someone to collect you after your procedure. Staff will do their best to make you comfortable. 

If you’ve had one or more of these treatments, you should be fully recovered in four to six weeks. 

If you have any bleeding or discharge after treatment you should avoid:

  • Having sex
  • Swimming
  • Using tampons

If you have any questions, talk with your healthcare team at Spire Healthcare.

You will be invited for a follow-up screening test six months after your treatment. It’s important that you keep this appointment. Treatment is successful in more than 80% of cases, but if any abnormal cells have returned, they will be quickly picked up with the follow-up screening. If this does happen, you will be referred for another colposcopy to see if you need further treatment.

Worried about your cervical screening results?

Receiving abnormal test results can be a worrying time for you. It’s important to share how you are feeling with someone you feel comfortable with. Talking through your concerns can help ease any anxiety, especially if you know someone that has gone through the same experience.

If you have any concerns, you can contact Spire Healthcare and arrange to speak with someone.

Getting an abnormal cervical screening result can come as a shock and you may immediately think the worst — but this is not necessarily the case. The staff at Spire Healthcare will be on hand to support you each step of the way.