FAQs about cervical cancer and the National Cervical Screening Program

How common is cervical cancer?

Australia has among the lowest rates of cervical cancer in the developed world. Around 900 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year and over 200 die as a result of the disease.


How is cervical cancer diagnosed?

Australia has a National Cervical Screening Program for women. The test looks for the presence of the Human Papillomavirus Virus (HPV) which causes the vast majority of cervical cancers. The test itself takes around two minutes and is a simple procedure that could save your life.

A positive HPV test can show that you could be at risk of cervical cancer before cancerous cells even begin to grow. You can then have treatment that will prevent cancer from developing in the first place – and this treatment will be much less invasive than it could have been otherwise.


When do I start Cervical Screening?

Women should start cervical screening at age 25. Women who turn 25 after 1 December 2017 will receive an invitation around their 25th birthday for their first HPV test. 

Women who had a normal Pap smear test in the two years before 1 December 2017 will receive an invitation to attend their first Cervical Screening Test two years after their last Pap smear. 

If it’s been more than two years since your last Pap smear test, you should talk to your doctor as soon as possible about being screened.


What can I expect at my first Cervical Screening Test?

For some women, the first cervical cancer screening can be a bit worrying, particularly if they’re not sure what to expect. The good news is that the whole procedure is usually done within just a few minutes.

On the day

When the time has come for your first Cervical Screening Test, try to stay as relaxed as possible. This will help ensure any physical discomfort is kept to a minimum.

The doctor or nurse will ask you to remove your clothing from the waist down, and to lie on your back or side. You might be given a sheet to lie across your stomach and thighs so you’ll be a little more covered.

Once you are comfortable. you will be asked to bend your knees so the heels of your feet are near your bottom. After opening your knees, the doctor or nurse can begin the procedure by inserting an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. The speculum holds the walls of the vagina apart and allows a clear view of the cervix. It is usually plastic and disposable, but some cervical screening providers prefer to use a metal one.

For some women, this part of the test can be a little awkward to start with, and you might find it a bit embarrassing. Just remember that this is a common test that most women have, and for the doctor or nurse it’s a very normal part of their job.

Once the speculum is in place, a brush is inserted through it to take a sample of cells from the cervix. This may feel a bit strange or uncomfortable but shouldn’t be painful, and it takes less than a minute or two. Once the doctor or nurse has taken some cells they will remove the speculum and you will be able to get dressed.

The cells from the cervix will be placed in a tube that contains liquid before the doctor or nurse sends them to a laboratory for a closer look. The cells are checked for HPV which, if left untreated, can lead to abnormal cells, and, in rare cases, to cervical cancer.

Getting your results

It usually takes around two weeks to get your results. Ask your doctor or health provider when they expect to get them back.


What happens after my Cervical Screening Test?

If HPV is not detected, all you need to do is to come back in five years for your next Cervical Screening Test. You will receive an invitation from the National Screening Register to remind you (unless you have asked for your details to be removed from the register).

If HPV is found, additional tests will automatically be done on the same sample of cells in the laboratory. Your doctor will let you know what will happen next. Depending on the results of all of the tests, you might have a repeat Cervical Screening Test in 12 months, to see if the HPV infection has cleared, or might have a follow-up procedure called a colposcopy.

It’s important to remember that HPV infections usually clear on their own. Also keep in mind that most abnormal cells are not cervical cancer, and can usually be treated quickly and painlessly.

You can find more information about the test here.


Where to have a Cervical Screening Test?

You can get a test done by your:

  • doctor
  • women’s health nurse
  • family planning clinic
  • sexual health clinic
  • community health clinic or women’s health centre
  • Aboriginal medical centre.
This information was last reviewed in December 2017