In the UK a National Cervical Screening Programme was introduced in 1988 to help prevent cervical cancer and save lives, from what in many parts of the world is a very common cancer.  The programme is very effective overall and is thought to save approximately 4,500 lives per year.

The cervical smear takes cells from the surface of the cervix (neck of the womb) and these cells are examined using a microscope for changes, which, if left untreated, can develop into cancer.  Normally it takes several years for these changes to progress into a cancer, but this is not always the case. A smear is not a diagnostic test (it is not a test for cancer), but alerts us to women who need further tests to help prevent cancer from developing or diagnose cancer at an early stage.  Discovering these abnormal cells and treating them can prevent around 75% of cervical cancers developing and picking up cancers at an early stage, before they cause symptoms, means that treatments are less aggressive and more likely to be successful.

Improving our services

Unfortunately, like other screening tests, the Cervical Screening Programme is not able to prevent all cancers. We continually monitor our services to see if we can make improvements.

We routinely undertake a review of women diagnosed with cervical cancer.  This is an essential part of the screening programme and a national requirement in order to ensure that we deliver a high quality service.

All hospitals carrying out cervical screening need to do these reviews. This process is called “audit” and it helps us improve the way the screening programme works. Audit also helps us to learn more scientific facts about the development and treatment of cervical cancer.

How reliable is cervical screening?

Cervical Screening does not always detect early cell changes that may lead to cancer. Abnormal cells may not be recognised because:

  • No sample was taken because either you didn’t receive a reminder or didn’t have a smear performed;
  • Sometimes the abnormal cells do not look very different from normal cells;
  • There may be very few abnormal cells, compared with the number of healthy cells seen;
  • The person examining the cells under the microscope may miss seeing the abnormal cells.  (This happens occasionally, no matter how experienced the reader is);
  • No abnormal cells were present and the cancer has developed since your last normal smear.

All your tests results with the Cancer Screening Programme (going back over the last 10 years, if this applies to you) are checked. We look at the number of invitations you had for screening and the number of times you attended.  The results of all the previous tests you have had are analysed (with the benefit of hindsight) to see if they were reliable at the time of your screening. These results are usually available 6 months after your diagnosis of cervical cancer. If you would like to know the results of the audit on your smears, they can be discussed with you during a dedicated appointment.

Useful contacts

  • Gynae – oncology Nurse Specialist
    Telephone: 01935 386368
  •  Colposcopy Office / Specialist Nurse
    Telephone 01935 384622
  • We Are Macmillan. Cancer Support
    89 Albert Embankment, London SE1 7UQ
    Telephone: 08088 080000
  • Jo’s Trust
    Jo’s Trust is a charity organisation supporting patients with cervical cancer. 


  • Disclosure of Audit Results In Cancer Screening. Advice on best practice. NHS Cancer Screening Series No 3 April 2006
  • Audit of Invasive Cervical Cancers. NHS CSP Publication No 28 December 2006

Ref: 21/20/27
Review: 11/22