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What is a Cervical Screening Test?

A Cervical Screening Test is the new, more accurate way to screen for cervical cancer. It’s replacing the Pap test or Pap smear (which are the same thing). The procedure is the same, but the tests done at the lab are much more accurate.

How does a Cervical Screening Test differ to a Pap test?

The new Cervical Screening Test detects the presence of an HPV infection, which can be the first step in developing cervical cancer. While the Pap test detects abnormal cell changes, the new test detects the presence of an HPV infection, which causes 99.7% of cervical cancers.

The procedure for collecting the sample for HPV testing is the same as having a Pap test. A healthcare professional will take a small sample of cells from the cervix, using a speculum. The sample will then be sent to a pathology laboratory for examination.If the test detects an HPV infection, your cell sample (the same one taken at during your Cervical Screening Test) will undergo another test in the lab looking for abnormal cell changes.

Self-collection using swabs will be an option for some people.

Other changes include the age of screening increasing from 18 years to 25 years, and the time between tests changing from two to five years. People aged 70 to 74 will be invited to have an exit test.

There’s also a new National Cancer Screening Register which will send you reminders when your next test is due. You can update your details, nominate a healthcare provider, change the date of your next test, and change your name. The register collects your name information from Medicare, so if your name doesn’t match your Medicare name, you can change it by calling them on 1800 627 701

Remember: The Cervical Screening Test is for people do not have symptoms. If you experience any symptoms like pain or unusual bleeding, you should see your GP as soon as possible.

Is a Cervical Screening Test the same thing as an HPV test?

The HPV test is part of the Cervical Screening Test. Your sample is tested for HPV, then if it’s positive, it’s tested again for any abnormal cell changes.

I’ve had the Gardasil/Cervarix vaccination, do I need to have a Cervical Screening Test?

Yes. Even if you have been vaccinated against HPV, you still require cervical screening as the HPV vaccine doesn’t protect against all of the strains that can cause cervical cancer.

I missed out on getting the Gardasil vaccine at school, is it worth getting now?

There’s nothing wrong with getting the HPV vaccine as an adult. The vaccine is safe to get at any age, but the older you get, the less protection it offers. Also, it may be cost prohibitive for some (approx. $450 for the full three doses).

What if I don’t have a cervix? Should I get tested for HPV?

Some people have vaginas but don’t have a cervix. This can include some trans women, some trans men, some intersex people and people who’ve had full hysterectomies.

People who don’t have a cervix are still able to get a test that is similar to the Cervical Screening Test (in that it can test for the presence of HPV and look for any changes to the cells of the vagina).

If you’ve had a full hysterectomy (meaning you used to have a cervix and don’t anymore), talk to your doctor about whether you need to continue to have the test – it will depend on your medical history before you had the hysterectomy.

There isn’t a lot of research on trans women and cancer screening, but the risk of developing "cancer of the neo-vagina" (as it's known in medical terminology) for trans women or other people who have had vaginoplasty (or other surgeries to create a vagina) is thought to be very small.

The risk will depend on what type of surgery you have had as well as your personal health history (things like previous HPV infections, HIV or auto-immune conditions).

The vast majority of people will get a strain of HPV at some point during their life and most people who get HPV will fight off the virus without ever knowing they have it.

HPV testing for people who were not born with a cervix isn’t usually covered by Medicare and isn’t part of a standard STI test. If you’re really worried, talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of HPV testing.

If you got the HPV vaccine, you’re protected against some, but not all of the strains of HPV that cause the most problems. The vaccine works best when you get it as a young person, but it can still be worthwhile getting it as an adult. Talk to your doctor about whether getting the vaccine is a good choice for you.

If you have any symptoms, including unusual bleeding or pain, you should see a doctor right away.

Why is the screening age changing to start at 25 years of age?

Cervical cancer in people younger than 25 is very rare. Research shows that despite screening people younger than 25 years old for over 20 years, there has been been no change to the rates of cervical cancer in this age group.

While HPV infection is common in people in this age group, it usually clears up itself within 1-2 years. An HPV infection that doesn’t clear up on its own usually takes 10 or more years to develop into cervical cancer.

If you didn’t get the Gardasil vaccine, had sexual contact at an early age, or have an immunodeficiency (for example, HIV or an auto-immune disease) talk to your doctor – they may advise you to get screened before you turn 25.

Why is the test every 5 years now?

HPV causes about 99.7% of cervical cancers. The new test looks for the presence of the HPV virus, while the Pap test looked for pre-cancerous changes in cells (which can occur because of the virus).

The cell changes caused by HPV that can lead to cervical cancer often take many years – on average 10 years – to develop, so looking for the presence of the HPV virus detects potential problems much earlier.

It’s important to remember that screening is for people who don’t have any symptoms! If you experience symptoms like pain, unusual or excessive bleeding, pain or bleeding during sex, unusual discharge, lower back pain or leg pain or swelling – see a doctor right away.

What is self-collection?

Self-collection – when you collect your own sample using a swab (so no speculum!) – is only available under Medicare if you’re over 30 and have never had cervical screening, or you are overdue by 2 years or more (so it's been 4 or more years since your last Pap test).

If you're eligible for self-collection and it's the best option for you, your doctor or nurse will give you a small swab and and tell you how to collect a sample from your vagina / front hole.

It’s a less effective screening test and if your sample tests positive for HPV, you’ll need to come back in so a clinician can take a sample of cells from your cervix to check for any abnormal changes.

It’s definitely better to get the full test in one go, but if you have found Paps difficult or impossible in the past and you’re now over 30 and overdue by 2 or more years, this could be a really good option for you. Talk to your GP or healthcare provider about self-collection options.

Some labs are waiting for accreditation to process the self-collected test, so there may be delays in getting your results. Check with your healthcare provider to find out more information.

Can I access self-collection?

Self-collection – when you collect your own sample using a swab (no speculum!) – is only available under Medicare if you’re over 30 and have never had cervical screening, or you are overdue by 2 years or more (so it's been 4 or more years since your last Pap test).

Talk to your GP or healthcare provider about self-collection options.

Is the new Cervical Screening Test actually better than the Pap test?

HPV causes about 99.7% of cervical cancers. The new test looks for the presence of the HPV virus, while the Pap test looked for pre-cancerous changes in cells (which can occur because of the virus).

The cell changes caused by HPV that can lead to cervical cancer often take many years to develop, so looking for the presence of the HPV virus detects potential problems much earlier.