Prime Minister Theresa May put cervical cancer in the political limelight by addressing the importance of getting a screening, ‘The smear test is hugely important. Sadly what we see is too many women not taking it up. I know it’s not a comfortable thing to do because I have it, as others do, But it is so important for women’s health and I first of all want to encourage women to take the smear test. Have that test.’
A warning from charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust highlights that only one in four women take up their NHS invitations aged between 25 and 64. More shockingly, one-third of women between 25-29 do not get screened.
Awareness of cervical cancer and smear tests peaked in 2009 when reality TV star Jade Goody died of the disease aged just 27.
The ‘Jade Goody Effect’ seems to have worn off and cervical smear tests are now at a 20 year low.
Last year Binky Felstead (of Made in Chelsea fame) spoke up about her own experiences.
Unable to get an NHS check-up aged 23 and suffering unusual stomach aches, Binky’s mother paid for her daughter to have a private screening which showed abnormal precancerous cells, which were then treated.
Although pre-cancerous cells are not cervical cancer they do need to be treated to prevent them developing.
The premature and tragic deaths of 19 year old Sophie Jones (2014) and 24 year old mother Rachel Sarjantson (2015) from cervical cancer, threw the age restrictions on the smear tests in to light with both womens families campaigning to have the age lowered.
However, many organisations including Jo’s Trust argue that there are more disadvantages to allowing women under 25 cervical cancer tests.
‘Since high risk HPV infections are common in women under 25, it is likely that if these younger women went for cervical screening a high percentage of them would test positive for cervical abnormalities…these women would be advised to have the cells removed.
However, most women with high risk HPV will clear the infection within 12 – 18 months and then the cervical abnormalities will go back to normal.’
Ultimately, if you are feeling like something might be wrong or you do want to be tested, you should insist.
A survey by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust of 25-35 year old women found that body embarrassment, anxiety about the invasive procedure and potential results is what deters women from being screened.
35% of women are failing to get tested because of their body shape.
Anxiety over ‘smelling normal’ affected 38% and 31% admitted they wouldn’t attend an appointment if they had not waxed or shaved their bikini area.
Gynae Health UK offers a revolutionary way of checking for HPV without the need to have a traditional smear test.
With GynaeCheck women can test for HPV in the comfort of their own homes with an easy, self administered test which, if done regularly and with no complications, can reduce the need for a traditional test. The test costs £95 and is available from their website.
Ignorance is another potential killer. Shockingly 28% of women are unaware of the testing or the need to be tested.
Up to 93% of cervical cancers are preventable with the proper screening and fears over the procedure and results are predominantly unfounded, reinforcing the need to raise awareness, dispel myths, and normalise smear tests.
Despite her criticism, Theresa May’s personalisation of cervical screenings on the political platform, Prime Ministers Question Time, is an essential act of progress that could save lives.
The national age of invitation for smear tests is 25 however, people throughout Britain are campaigning for the age to be reduced.
Many argue that a lower age could save the lives of women like Rachel Sarjantson, who died aged 24 after struggling to get a smear test.
According to Cancer Research UK, abnormal cells occur more commonly in younger girls usually as a result of puberty, but more crucially they are much more likely to clear up on their own.
Women under the age of 25 are therefore more likely to have unnecessary investigations and treatments.
Stigma around cervical cancer and smear tests needs to be banished and awareness needs to be raised.
The Smear for Smear campaign started by Jo’s charity aimed to do exactly that.
The hashtag Smearforsmear has over 15,000 posts on Instagram of women and men taking a selfie with smudged lipstick to raise awareness, celebrities including Cara Delevingne and Georgia May Jagger also got involved.
Comments on the posts included ‘I made my smear test appointment today – it has been 6 years since my last test and your recent publicity has made me gain the courage to get tested! You’re making a real difference’, and ‘As a GP receptionist the phone has not stopped ringing today with ladies booking in for smears.’
Smear tests shouldn’t be a taboo, looking after yourself is number one.
If you have any concerns, or queries and you want to be tested or if you are between 25-35 and haven’t had a smear test in over 3 years, speak to your GP and make your appointment.
For more information around smear tests and cervical cancer see https://www.jostrust.org.uk/smearforsmear