Screening for cervical cancer

Cervical screening is the process of looking for cancer or precancerous changes in women who don’t have any symptoms. The cervical screening test detects cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV) in a sample of cells taken from the cervix.

The National Cervical Screening Program recommends that women aged 25–74 have a cervical screening test two years after their last Pap test, and then once every five years. Whether you identify as straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex, if you have a cervix you should have regular cervical screening tests.

During both the old Pap test and the new cervical screening test the doctor gently inserts an instrument called a speculum into the vagina to get a clear view of the cervix. The doctor uses a brush or spatula to remove some cells from the surface of the cervix. This can feel slightly uncomfortable, but it usually takes only a minute or two. The sample is placed into liquid in a small container and sent to a laboratory to check for HPV.

If HPV is found, a specialist doctor called a pathologist will do an additional test on the sample to check for cell abnormalities. This is called liquid-based cytology (LBC).

The results of the cervical screening test are used to predict your level of risk for significant cervical changes. If the results show:

  • a higher risk – your GP will refer you to a specialist (gynaecologist) for colposcopy 
  • an intermediate risk – you will be monitored by having a follow-up test (usually for HPV) in 12 months and more frequent screening tests in the future
  • a low risk – you will be due for your next cervical screening test in five years.

A small number of women are diagnosed with cervical cancer because of an abnormal cervical screening test. For more information about screening tests, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or visit cervicalscreening.org.au.


What are precancerous cervical cell changes?

Sometimes the squamous cells and glandular cells in the cervix start to change. They no longer appear normal when they are examined under a microscope.

These early cervical cell changes may be precancerous. This means there is an area of abnormal tissue (a lesion) that is not cancer, but may lead to cancer. Only some women with precancerous changes of the cervix will develop cervical cancer.

Precancerous cervical cell changes are caused by certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV). These cervical cell changes don’t have symptoms but can be found during a routine cervical screening test.

There are two main types of cervical cell changes:

Abnormal squamous cells – These are called squamous intraepithelial lesions (SIL). They can be classified as either low grade (LSIL) or high grade (HSIL).

SIL used to be called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN), which was graded according to how deep the abnormal cells were within the surface of the cervix:

  • LSIL, previously graded as CIN 1, usually disappear without treatment.
  • HSIL, previously graded as CIN 2 or 3, are precancerous. High-grade abnormalities have the potential to develop into early cervical cancer over 10–15 years if they are not found and treated. They can often be treated without affecting fertility.

Abnormal glandular cells – These are called adenocarcinoma in situ. They will need treatment to reduce the chance they develop into adenocarcinoma. Anyone with abnormal glandular cells in the cervix should be referred to a gynaecologist for a colposcopy.

Treating precancerous cervical cell changes will prevent them developing into cervical cancer. 


Click on the icon below to download a PDF booklet on cervical cancer


    Understanding Cervical Cancer

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Printed copies are available for free - Call 13 11 20 to order

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This information was last reviewed in September 2019
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