I have a confession to make. It’s been gnawing away at me for, ooh about a year now. But despite the fact that the worry of it sometimes wakes me up in the middle of the night, I’ve done nothing to get it sorted. And yet, all it would take is one phone call to my GP to book my cervical smear test.
I’m certainly not alone in my smear fear. New research by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust released for Cervical Screening Awareness Week (June 12 – 18) revealed that the number of women attending their cervical cancer screening test is at a 19-year low in England, at just 72%, and at a 10 year low in both Wales and Scotland.
A previous quizzing of women by the charity revealed that over half (51%) of those surveyed reported delaying or not attending smear tests with almost one quarter (24%) admitting they have delayed for over one year and almost one in ten having never attended the test.
This is in spite of the fact that cervical cancer currently claims two lives every day in the UK. It is the most common cancer in women under-35.
Equally as worrying, is the news that women are unaware of the basic function of the cervix. According to Jo’s Trust, almost half of women (44.2%) are unaware of what the cervix is; unable to correctly identify it as the neck of the womb (uterus). One-in-six women couldn’t name a single function of the cervix, with less than half (41.40%) aware that it connects the womb to the vagina, and only one-in-three knowing that it provides a seal to hold the baby in when pregnant.
The charity hopes that by increasing awareness of the important role of the cervix, it can increase awareness of cervical cancer, and most importantly the fact that 75% of cervical cancers be prevented through screening.
So when we know how vital smear tests can be, why are women still not attending?
Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: “There are many reasons women don’t attend, ranging from simply putting it off to worrying it will be embarrassing or painful, to not knowing what the test is and why it’s important.”
During this week’s Cervical Screening Awareness Week, the charity want to encourage women to talk to their friends, mothers and daughters about the steps they can take to reduce their risk of cervical cancer.
“Cervical cancer is largely preventable with cervical screening (smear tests) providing the best protection against the disease,” Music added. “It’s time we change the worrying statistics and make increasing screening uptake a national and local priority.”
My own excuses reasons for not going are a mixed bag of inconvenience with a side order of fear. As a freelance writer I manage my own schedule, so fitting in an appointment around work shouldn’t really be a problem. But as a mum of twins, the busy-ness of school runs, after school clubs and the like provide just enough reason to put off making the call.
As for the whole scariness thing, in theory I know it will be a quick, relatively pain-less procedure that could ultimately save my life. But every time my hand hovers over my mobile to book the appointment, my mind can’t help but conjure up reasons not to.
For a start, there’s the whole awkwardness thing. When you do something every three years, you kind of forget what you’re doing and its difficult not to stop yourself getting worked up about the minor details. Which way do I lie? Do I need to take all my clothes off? Should I neaten up down there?
Then, there’s the pain. “It’ll hurt less if you relax,” they say. But when you’re lying legs akimbo with a surgical instrument pointing towards your frou frou, it’s pretty difficult to feel anywhere near relaxed.
And you can’t help but read between the lines. Is she asking me that because it looks like something’s wrong? Does she ask everyone that? Does everyone bleed that much? Does that face she’s pulling mean I’ve got cancer? Gah!
But, really, if I’m brutally honest with myself, though I’d never describe my previous smears as pleasant experiences, were they really that bad?
As a previous features editor for various women’s magazines I’ve lost count of the articles I’ve written about the dangers of cervical cancer. I know better than anyone the risks associated with skipping my smear. And yet, here I am doing just that.
So what needs to change? Though I’m lucky enough that I could potentially attend a work-time appointment, that certainly isn’t the case for most women. An earlier survey by Jo’s Trust found that 35% of the 2,700 surveyed would have attended their smear appointment had their surgery been open outside office hours.
So we really need to try and make that happen. Whether it’s a change in smear test appointment hours to include evenings and weekends, being able to attend a surgery near your work, or increased support from employers to be able to take time off for vital health checks, like smears, there’s little doubt these small things could make a massive difference to the number of women attending their smears.
As for the actual procedure itself, perhaps a degree of honesty is necessary. “Mild discomfort,” they describe it, but I’m yet to meet a woman who’d choose those words to label the experience. And perhaps its time we got ‘real’ about it. Because being prepared mentally might just take away some of that smear fear.
“We cannot afford to see cervical screening attendance fall any further,” Robert Music continued. “Diagnoses of cervical cancer in the UK are worryingly high and will only increase if more women don’t attend screening. We want to encourage women to look after their health, including the health of their cervix and that means attending cervical screening. By not attending, women are significantly increasing their risk of a life-threatening disease.”
Luckily, Marianne Wood, a colposcopy nurse, has some words of reassurance for those, like me, who are still nervous about attending their smear test. “If you are nervous or unsure about attending then please do talk to the nurse performing your test who will be able to explain what will happen and answer any questions you have,” she said.
“Cervical screening may be uncomfortable but it should not be painful and remember, the nurses will really try to make you feel at ease if you feel embarrassed in any way. I want to encourage every woman to attend their appointment when invited and not delay. It’s such an important five minute test that really could save your life.”
As for me, I’ve finally had enough of ignoring that nagging little voice keeping me awake at night. So right after I’ve finished writing this I’m off to dig out my reminder from the junk drawer, face the horror head-on and book my appointment. I may not be looking forward to it, but I know I’ve got to do it. And you do too, right?
Find out more about Cervical Screening Awareness Week at jostrust.org.uk/csaw
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