Regular smear tests are essential in detecting potentially harmful changes. We follow Sarah’s story and get essential facts everyone needs to know.
Canterbury woman Sarah says she has an even greater respect for cervical screening, since she was found to have pre-cancerous cells following a recent smear test.
At just 36 years old and describing herself as super healthy, Sarah says that without screening she never would have known anything was wrong. “Thankfully my doctor found the cells early and my life has carried on as normal.”
In late 2020, Sarah visited her GP for her three-yearly smear test, something she had always done without fail. “I’d never had an unusual smear before, so I was expecting everything to be OK. It came as a bit of a surprise when abnormal changes were discovered.”
It was recommended that Sarah have a colposcopy – a procedure that closely checks the cervix for abnormalities, including cervical cancer. Because she had private health insurance and had been to Oxford Women’s Health in the past, she called the clinic and an appointment was arranged with gynaecologist Janene Brown. A colposcopy at the clinic revealed a high-grade abnormality: CIN3 pre-cancerous cells on her cervix.
The next step was to have another procedure to remove the cells and have them tested to see if any of them were cancerous. “By this point, I thought, ‘There’s nothing I can do about it. I just need to go through the process and see what comes next,’” Sarah says.
She underwent a large loop excision of the transformation zone, also known as a LLETZ biopsy. This relatively common treatment removes abnormal cells from the cervix, which are then sent away for further examination.
“The thought of someone looking at your lady bits is scary, but if you need to have a colposcopy or LLETZ, you just need to get it done. In the end it wasn’t hard and I had a lovely bunch of ladies looking after me.”
When the results came back, Sarah was told the CIN3 changes were benign but had the potential to turn into cancer if they hadn’t been removed. During the LLETZ procedure, Janene had also performed a diathermy, which uses heat to destroy abnormal cervical cells. No further treatment was required and a follow-up smear revealed all was well.
Now, Sarah needs to have a smear test every 12 months (rather than every three years) to check all is well. “It was a good result,” she says. “I have no history of cervical cancer, no family history of cancer, and I have a very healthy and active life, so it just shows that cancer doesn’t care who you are or how well you are. You just have to look after yourself.”
Cancer doesn’t care who you are or how well you are. You just have to look after yourself
Cervical screening appointments give her peace of mind. “Everyone needs to keep on top of their regular smear tests and check-ups,” Sarah says. “It’s so simple.”
Get the facts
1 In New Zealand, anyone with a cervix or vagina who has ever been sexually active should have regular cervical screening from the time they turn 25 until they are 70.
2 If something out of the ordinary is discovered, the person will be referred for colposcopy. If you are booked for colposcopy, it means things aren’t normal and need to be further investigated to either give you peace of mind that all is well or ensure that you receive treatment for whatever else is found.
3 Unlike many cancers, we know exactly what causes most cervical cancers – human papillomavirus (HPV). In New Zealand, young women and men aged nine to 26 are able to be vaccinated against HPV to help prevent them from getting cervical cancer or passing on the virus. Everyone who is eligible for the HPV vaccination should make an appointment with their GP – just remember that even if you are vaccinated, you still need to take part in regular screening or testing.
4 According to the Ministry of Health, 160 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed annually, with 50 people dying from the disease every year.