Number of women booking smear tests is declining – this is why you mustn’t avoid yours
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Less than three quarters of eligible women in Suffolk have had a cervical screening in the last three and a half to five and a half years – have you had yours?
Despite all women in the UK receiving a letter inviting them to attend a cervical screening just before they turn 25, new government statistics released last month revealed that - worryingly - fewer women than ever in England are actually booking and attending their appointments. The stats revealed that just 71.4% of women actually take up the invitation to be screened, putting the country at a 21 year low. Putting this into numbers, this means that of the 4.46 million women invited for smear tests in 2017-2018, 1.28 million women did not book an appointment.
In the East of England, figures for Suffolk alone were pretty much on par with England as a whole, and have too decreased over the past few years. In 2017-2018, only 74.1% of eligible women in the county have had a smear test in the last 3.5 to 5.5 years – a percentage which sat at 75.7% in 2014. Although these numbers were higher only a small handful of years ago, they are still significantly lower than the NHS’ target of 80%.
A cervical screening (previously known as a smear test) isn’t a test for cancer; it’s a test to check the health of the cells of the cervix. Most women’s test results show that everything is normal, but for around one in 20 women the test can show abnormal cells. Most of these abnormalities won’t lead to cervical cancer and the cells may go back to normal on their own. However in some cases, the abnormal cells need to be removed so they can’t become cancerous – and this is why booking your is so important.
Another 2018 study, this one conducted by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, found one of the main reasons women, especially young women, are avoiding their cervical screenings is due to embarrassment. Of the 2,017 women aged 25-35 surveyed, 35% were embarrassed to attend because of their body shape, 34% because of the appearance of their vulva and 38% due to concerns over smelling ‘normal’. A third of women (31%) admitted they also wouldn’t go if they hadn’t waxed or shaved.
Ipswich resident Jade Hutchings is in the same age bracket as the women surveyed about avoiding appointments, however doesn’t think embarrassment should be a reason to not get your smear test done. She said: “I really can’t understand why woman don’t go to get it done! It’s done so quickly; it’s uncomfortable for a moment and then it’s over! I wish I could have one every year just to be on the safe side!”
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Martina Darling, from Stowmarket agrees. She said: “Although some women get embarrassed, it’s better to be embarrassed for five minutes than find out something is wrong when it’s too late.
“After a previous smear test, I found out I had abnormal cells which, once tested, were found to be precancerous. If I hadn’t had the smear test, it would almost certainly have worsened by now.”
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Another of the many women I spoke to about this topic explained why, from previous experience, she believes the tests are so important. She said: “I once had an irregular smear and had to be referred to the hospital for a biopsy. Thankfully it all turned out okay, but the whole process was handled really well (long live the NHS) and my doctor was lovely. Most of the nurses I’ve seen have been so, so nice and make you feel really at ease because obviously, it’s a bit of an awkward situation to be in - especially your first test.
“I think it’s incredibly important for women to make sure they go regularly for screenings - especially as I’m proof that it’s a great way to catch any irregularities early - and to not be put off.”
Another Suffolk woman, who wishes to remain anonymous too, also got in touch to share her story. She said: “Back in 2006 at the age of 30, I had an abnormal bleed mid cycle so I phoned my doctors and had a cervical screening. The result came back as borderline changes. I then had to wait another couple of months for another screening; the result of that one came back as abnormal and would I have to have a colposcopy, which is a detailed examination of the cervix. It was a stressful time as I didn’t know what to expect.
“My cervix was scraped and they took a biopsy, which confirmed the presence of a lesion which was removed; it could have lead to cancer at a later stage. I subsequently had to have a further smear test six months later and then one after 12 months, followed by annual smears for a further nine years. All of the previous smear tests have remained normal and still remain normal.
“I am so glad I have regular smear tests even before the abnormal diagnosis. It doesn’t take long and can make all the difference; I would definitely recommend having regular smear tests.”
If you are one of the 28% of women in the UK who haven’t had a cervical screening in the past 3.5 to 5.5 years, I urge you book one as soon as you can. It’s a quick process and fairly painless, and most importantly, it could save your life.
“I found it was no where near as bad as people had made it out to be,” added Millie Cowdell from Ipswich. “People talk about it as if they use torture equipment, so I think the thought of it was a lot worse. If we can break that stigma, I think more women would book.”
For more information on the NHS Cervical Screening Programme, talk to your GP or read more on the NHS website.