Nicola Gray, of Aberdeen University's department of general practice and primary care and the study's lead author, said these results showed that those with slightly abnormal, or low-grade, smears suffered similar anxiety levels to women with high-grade smears. This she suggested was because women may not understand their test results or the meaning of the term pre-cancerous, and wrongly conclude that any abnormalities detected must indicate cancer. So she said that it was important to introduce strategies to improve women's understanding and to address their fears about cancer, treatment and fertility to help reduce this anxiety. She went on to explain that the women at highest risk of feeling anxious tended to be younger, have children, be smokers or had the highest levels of physical activity.
In this study, the women were screened for clinically significant anxiety using a scale known as the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (Hads). On examining the scores the researchers found that 23% of the women were classified as probable cases of clinical anxiety and 20% of women as possible cases. These results they found were similar to those for women whose smears showed a higher degree of abnormality. The researchers said that this shows that there is not enough being done to inform women about what an abnormal smear means.
A slightly abnormal smear test indicates changes in the cells that could lead to cancer in the future but rarely does it mean that a woman already has cancer.
In the majority of cases, the cells return to normal in a few months without treatment. The doctors could check on the woman through a follow-up smear.
Martin Ledwick, cancer nurse manager at Cancer Research UK, said that a woman treated for abnormal cells rarely goes on to develop cervical cancer, yet it is vitally important for women to understand that smear tests are all about cancer prevention. She explained that the test detects abnormal cells that could become cancerous, and follow-up treatment prevents cervical cancer from developing.
The national screening programme is estimated to save thousands of lives in the UK every year. But if women are worried unnecessarily by the results of their smear, the concern now could be that they won't continue to go for regular checks, she said.
The smear test detects abnormalities that can occur in the cells covering the cervix that can, if left, develop into a cervical cancer. Usually, this would take a number of years. The Medical Research Council and the NHS in Scotland and England had funded the research.