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Myths and facts about cervical screening

As with other aspects of cervical cancer, there’s a lot of misinformation about screening. Here are some of the common myths you and your patients may have heard.

Myths among patients

Here are some common myths we have heard from patients through our engagement work, research, Helpline and other services.

Is screening a test for cervical cancer?

No. Cervical screening is a test to prevent cancer. It looks for conditions that may lead to cervical cancer, which can be detected years before cancer develops. 

Sometimes patients need to have the prevention aspect explained to them. You could say something like:

“Cervical screening looks for high-risk types of human papillomavirus or HPV , which is linked with nearly all cases of cervical cancer. Sometimes, high-risk HPV can go on to cause changes in the cells lining the cervix. Eventually, this may lead to cervical cancer. Screening aims to find HPV and cell changes a long time before cervical cancer develops. If you don’t have HPV, your risk of cervical cancer is very low. If someone has HPV, the sample will be checked for cell changes. And if these are found, they may need further testing and possibly treatment.”

If you are based in Northern Ireland, you can adapt this to talk about cytology.

Does cervical screening check for other types of cancer?

No. 1 in 5 people mistakenly believe cervical screening can detect ovarian cancer – we’ve also had people asking whether it checks for sexually transmitted infections. Be clear with patients about this, so there is no confusion or shock about results. It is also important to let your patients know that having cervical screening doesn’t protect against other cancers or conditions, so they can still be aware of risk factors and gynaecological symptoms.

Does cervical screening really reduce cervical cancer risk?

Cervical screening is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of cervical cancer. You will probably need to talk about HPV as part of explaining this – focusing on the fact that there is no guaranteed way to prevent HPV. You can tell patients that condom or dental dam use doesn’t give complete protection and, while the HPV vaccine greatly lowers risk, it doesn’t protect against all types of high-risk HPV. 

Is cervical screening painful?

Many women and people with a cervix don’t find cervical screening painful. However, we know that some do find it painful, so it’s important to acknowledge this and not dismiss it as a myth. If patients want to attend cervical screening but find it painful, there are adjustments you can offer to help.

Will people know I’ve been for cervical screening?

Some women and people with a cervix may be very worried members of their community or family will know they’ve gone for screening, or may find out their results. It’s important to stress to patients screening is completely confidential. There’s no way anyone else will find out what their appointment is for or will see the results.

Is cervical screening only for people who have had sex?

All women and people with a cervix aged 25 to 64 are entitled to cervical screening on the NHS, as soon as they receive their first invitation (which may be about 6 months before their 25th birthday). If someone in this group wants to attend cervical screening, they have the right to it. While sexual history may influence someone’s risk, it shouldn’t determine whether or not they can have cervical screening. 

If someone believes that cervical screening is only for people who have had sex because they believe cervical cancer is caused by sex, this is also a myth. You can talk to the patient about HPV, transmission and how common the virus is.

Do I need to have had breast cancer to develop cervical cancer?

No, these cancers are not linked. Our Public Health Engagement team have heard this myth from certain communities, so it is important for patients to understand that cervical cancer is a separate thing to other cancers and can develop on its own, even if someone has never had cancer before.

Myths among professionals

Sometimes we hear myths from professionals, which we have included below. 

Will I take someone’s virginity by taking a cervical screening sample? 

No. If a patient hasn’t had sex, they are still entitled to have cervical screening and you shouldn’t take that decision away from them. Virginity is constructed around a sexual or intimate experience, whereas cervical screening is a health test. 

We have heard from some sample takers who are concerned about ‘breaking’ the hymen during cervical screening. This shouldn’t be a worry – the hymen is not a good indication of whether someone has been sexually active and may not be intact even if the patient has never had penetrative sex. Equally, cervical screening should not be forceful enough to ‘break’ any part of the anatomy.

Do lesbian, gay or bisexual women need cervical screening? 

Lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) women are as entitled to cervical screening as any other eligible person. In the past, there has been misunderstanding about it, even among professionals. 

Remember that any genital skin-to-skin contact can spread HPV – not just penetration with a penis. So LGB patients can still get HPV, even if they’ve never had sex with a man. 

If you see LGB patients, it’s important to be sensitive to any specific anxiety they may have in healthcare appointments. Try not to make assumptions about the gender of someone’s partner or the type of sexual relationships they’re having. Be aware that they may have experienced discrimination in the past because of their sexual orientation, which may impact on how comfortable they feel about the appointment.

  • Target Ovarian Cancer (2019). Smear tests won’t detect ovarian cancer. Web: https://targetovariancancer.org.uk/news/smear-tests-wont-detect-ovarian-cancer. Accessed November 2020.
  • Mishori, R. et al (2019). The little tissue that couldn’t – dispelling myths about the Hymen’s role in determining sexual history and assault. Reproductive Health. 16;74. pp.1-25.
  • Sasieni, P. et al. (2009). Effectiveness of cervical screening with age: population based case-control study of prospectively recorded data. BMJ. 7716;339. pp.1-7.

Barriers to cervical screening >

Find out how to support patients and overcome barriers to cervical screening.

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Date last updated: 
12 Nov 2020
Date due for review: 
01 Nov 2023
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