New figures reveal that the number of women screened for cervical cancer in Northern Ireland falls well below target levels.

Only 72 per cent of women within the target age group in the Province had a cervical smear test in the five-year period up to 31 March 2003 – contrasting with higher figures for England, Scotland and Wales. NHS targets for cervical screening call for a minimum of 80 per cent of Northern Ireland women aged between 20 and 65 to be screened every five years.

Cancer Research N. Ireland today urges women in the Province to take up the opportunity to be screened for cervical cancer when they receive an invitation, as screening is the best available way for women to prevent cervical cancer developing.

Each year around 90 women in Northern Ireland are diagnosed with cervical cancer and about 30 die of the disease.

But cases of cervical cancer have fallen since cervical screening programmes were introduced in the mid-1960s.

Dr Sarah McKenna, Medical Oncologist at the Belfast City Hospital, says: “Cervical screening saves thousands of lives every year across the UK. Doctors recommend that every woman between the ages of 20 and 65 in Northern Ireland have a smear test at least every 5 years.

“A positive result from a smear test doesn’t mean you have cancer. The test is important because it can pick up pre-cancerous changes in the cervix and gives doctors the opportunity to prevent cervical cancer occurring.

“The pre-cancerous changes the smear test picks up don’t cause any symptoms, so regular screening is the only chance doctors have to detect them.”

The new figures show that considerably fewer women are screened for cervical cancer in Northern Ireland than in other regions of the UK.

Coverage – which is the proportion of women of target age who have had a cervical smear in the last five years – was 72 per cent for Northern Ireland in the most recent five-year period for which statistics are available.

This contrasts with coverage figures of 86 per cent in Scotland, 81 per cent in England and 78 per cent in Wales for women within the target age range in each country.

Coverage for cervical screening varies regionally within Northern Ireland. Coverage was highest in the Northern Board at 77 per cent, and lowest in the Western and Eastern Boards at 69 per cent. The Southern Board had coverage of 74 per cent.

Sister Ruth Boyd, a Cancer Research N. Ireland Senior Research Nurse says: “All women within the recommended age group receive a regular invitation to go for cervical screening. I would urge women in the Province take up the offer – it’s a decision that could save their lives.

“It is understandable that many women are anxious about the smear test procedure or are worried about what the result could tell them. But I would reassure them that they will be seen by doctors and nurses who have long experience in talking women through the process and are sensitive to women’s concerns.

“If you didn’t respond to an invitation to attend cervical screening in the past, you don’t need to wait for the next one to have a smear test. You can contact your GP at any time to arrange one. The test is free.”

A new Cancer Research UK leaflet called “Preventing cervical cancer – why screening is important” is available by clicking here or by calling 020 7061 8333.



Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that is preventable because pre-cancerous cell changes can be picked up in a screening test. If you are a woman registered with a GP in Northern Ireland and are between the ages of 20 and 65 you will be contacted at least every five years and asked to come for a cervical screening test.

The Cervical Smear test

A scraping of cells is taken from the surface of the cervix and examined under the microscope to see if any of them are showing signs of becoming cancerous.

What is the test?

The screening test is called a cervical smear. A nurse or doctor takes a small sample of cells from the surface of your cervix and spreads them onto a glass slide. This is called a PAP smear. When it reaches the lab, the slide is treated and then put under a microscope. The cells are examined and any abnormal ones reported.

This is a test for pre-cancer. A positive smear does not mean you have cancer. It means you have cells that, if not treated, might go on to develop into cancer.

Symptoms of cervical cancer

The most common symptom of cervical cancer is bleeding from the vagina at other times than when you are having a period. You may have bleeding:

  • Between periods
  • After or during sex
  • At any time if you are past your menopause

Some women also have:

  • A vaginal discharge that smells unpleasant
  • Discomfort or pain during sex

Doctors call pain related to sex ‘dyspareunia’. There are many other conditions that cause these symptoms. Most of these conditions are much more common than cervical cancer, but it is very important to get your symptoms checked out by a doctor. If it does turn out that your symptoms are caused by cervical cancer, the sooner you are treated the more likely you are to be cured and usually the less treatment you will need to have.

Pre-cancerous changes do not cause any symptoms. Which is why it is so important to have a regular screening for the disease.

Visit our website, CancerHelp UK, for clear, easy to understand information about cancer and cancer treatments.

CancerHelp UK carries extensive information on cervical cancer and cervical screening.