Cervical screening can save your life; cervical cancer is not only a young woman's problem we explain why
If you are over 40 and think getting a smear test is no longer an issue for you you could be wrong. This week (24th-30th February 2016) is Cervical Cancer Prevention Week and its aim is to raise awareness about the importance of ongoing regular screening.
When was the last time you had a smear test? We’re not nagging, we fully appreciate it takes time out of your day and might not be the most pleasurable or dignified few minutes of your life but, it can be helpful to be reminded that the test does quite literally take minutes – and, crucially, it saves lives. The U.K. screening programme has halved death rates and prevents up to 3,900 cases of cervical cancer annually. In fact, cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that can be prevented and if picked up early has a much greater chance of being successfully treated. Still, the stark fact is, according to the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, eight women in the UK are still being diagnosed with cervical cancer every day.
Almost 4 million women are not having a smear test
What is potentially worrying is that almost 4 million women are not taking up the offer of a free NHS test and statistics released by the NHS in December 2015 show the sharpest decline was among the 40-54 age bracket. This is despite studies showing those who shunned regular screening can be up to six times more at risk than those who do. Some experts are also suggesting that as we are living longer – and often starting new sexual relationships in our 40s, 50s and 60s - women should start to be screened beyond the age of 65.
If you start a new relationship in your 40s, 50s or 60s you need to be aware of the HPV virus
As things stand, screening is offered to those aged between 25 and 49 every three years and then every five years between 50 and 65. Why there was a significant drop in the number of 40+ women taking up the test is not obvious but the media focus in the last five or six years - particularly after the death of Jade Goody - has tended to target younger women (and rates of the cancer are highest between the ages of 25-49). This has led to a widespread misconception that it is somehow a ‘young women’s problem.’ Yet one in five new cervical cancer cases are diagnosed in their 60s – something attributed to more women starting new sexual relationships in their 40s and 50s and so increasing their exposure to strains of the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV). Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the HPV virus and this virus lays dormant and can take 10 or more years to present as cervical abnormalities that can potentially develop into cancer.
Negative experiences prevent women from having a regular cervical smear
Another potential reason we might put off getting tested post 40 is that the longer we have lived, the more tests we are likely to have had and the likelihood of having had a negative experience increases! According to research from GynaeHealth UK pain and embarrassment were cited as the biggest reasons for avoiding a smear test. Seventy per cent of respondents in the research said it was uncomfortable and one in 10 described the experience as traumatic. Also for some, who have been treated for an abnormal result – or a series of them – being poked and prodded about one time too many whilst lying with feet in stirrups can leave something of a psychological scar. Plus for many menopausal women it can become increasingly uncomfortable: As oestrogen levels drop after menopause, the walls of the vagina can become thinner and you produce less lubrication, so inserting the speculum (the tool used to open the cervix) can be uncomfortable. Throw in a condition called atrophic cervix – where the cells of the cervix do not shed as easily (something that happens to all women after menopause) - and this can lead to an inadequate test result if not enough cells have been collected. But, the thing is, your practice nurse (who generally carries out the test) will have ways and means of making the experience go as smoothly as possible so tell her if you have any particular issues.
A cervical smear can take as little as three minutes – so what are you waiting for?
And as we say the procedure takes around three minutes - that’s three minutes out of your day – which could effectively save your life. So go on, bite the bullet and make an appointment today if you need one. And encourage your friends and family to go. As Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust says, ‘We must remind all women that HPV is very common and can lie dormant for very long periods of time and the best way of reducing one’s risk of cervical cancer is to attend screening promptly while eligible.’
For more help
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has re-launched its award-winning campaign to raise awareness about the importance of regular screening #SmearForSmear @JoTrust Help spread the word by sending your #SmearForSmear selfies.
Find out more from your GP or go to cancerscreening.nhs.uk/cervical
GynaeCheck is a new DIY HPV detection test from GynaeHealth UK that can be done in a matter of seconds and in the privacy of your own home. You use the device to take a fluid sample and send it off to be screened for the presence of high risk HPV. Those who test positive are then encouraged to re-engage with NHS screening. The test costs £129.