|Photo Credit : Jerry Kiesewetter|
Back in 2009 a report noted that media coverage of celebrity illness triggers a 'cause and effect' situation. The example used was the positive effect on the take-up of cervical screening (a smear test) after the coverage of Jade Goody's battle against cervical cancer.
Jade was part of that hard-to-reach age group - the women aged 25-35 - and because Jade was a woman who wore her heart on her sleeve, made mistakes in a very public arena and spoke her mind, her circumstances created an identifiable event which was much more effective than a national campaign or a simple leaflet.
Fast forward nine years and the Jade Goody effect is wearing off. Across the UK cervical screening figures have fallen with more than 1.2 million women not taking action on their reminder for a smear test - a 20-year low. Because of our wonderful National Health Service, the smear test is free, is available to all women over the age of 25 (and to any sexually active woman of any age, upon request) and we are advised to have have our smear test every three years.
The reason I'm talking about this is because I saw a Facebook update from my friend, Claire, over the weekend and my jaw dropped when I read it.
There's a fantastic initiative in Blackburn at Barbara Castle Way Health Centre which ensures that every woman who works regular office hours can be seen for a smear test at a time convenient to them, including at the weekend. The clinic has been running since the beginning of the year but Claire was the first person who had actually shown up to take advantage of the service provision. Yes, seriously!! Many appointments had been made however everyone, bar Claire, had been a no-show... in a time where it feels like the NHS is at breaking point!
OK, every woman knows that a smear test isn't the most comfortable thing to go through and you're probably not going to be swapping phone numbers with the nurse who does your test, but its definitely something that I used* to put up with because I was so fearful of the alternative.
(If you have never had a smear test or you're unsure what happens and why, then it's really worth checking out this handy web page from Jo's Trust which explains everything in plain language.)
We all lead such busy lives that fitting in a five minute appointment sometimes feels impossible, especially when GP surgery hours usually clash with work and family commitments. It would definitely be worth researching in your local area to see if there is a similar offering and spreading the word.
If you have a similar clinic service in your town, please leave the details in the comments below for other women to use as a reference.
*You may be wondering why I said "I used to" go for smear tests. I had a full hysterectomy when I was age 31 due to a long history of gynaecological problems. One of these issues was found during a regular smear test when I was 22 which led to colposcopy treatment. This solved the initial problem but there were many more issues which led to the full hysterectomy - not a decision that was taken lightly by my consultant or myself, but one that was the end of a long journey. Because cancer had affected a few family members - including my daughter - I was always vigilant about attending smear tests when required and it's something that I want to encourage all women to do too.
EDITED - 22nd JANUARY 2018
Cervical Cancer Prevention Week
When I originally wrote the above post, I wasn't aware that 22-28th January was Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, although I had heard about the #smearforsmear campaign from previous years. I sent Jo's Trust a link to this blog post and they reached out to me to share the new facts and figures with regards to young woman not attending smear tests. I'm adding it in now because I totally believe it's important to be fully aware of all information when talking about an important subject like this.
First some facts about cervical cancer...
- The majority (99.7%) of cervical cancers are caused by persistent human papillomavirus (HPV) infection which causes changes to the cervical cells
- 220,000 UK women are diagnosed with cervical abnormalities each year
- Over 3,200 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 890 women lose their lives every year
- Around 5 million UK women are invited to cervical screening each year yet one in four do not attend
- Women aged 25-49 are invited every three years and women aged 50-64 are invited every five years
Did you know that body shame is responsible for 35% of young women not attending smear tests? There are also concerns about the appearance of their vulva and smelling 'normal'. Also, almost a third of women aged 25-35 admitted that they wouldn't attend their smear test if they hadn't had a bit of a tidy up around the bikini area! Many of the women surveyed also said that they would rather miss their smear test then a gym class or a waxing appointment.
Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is concerned that body image issues, including perception of what is ‘normal’, could be putting lives in danger. Across the UK, one in four eligible women (aged 25-64) do not take up their smear test invitation, this rises to one in three among 25-29 year olds and is even as high as one in two in some areas of the UK. The charity is releasing its new data at the start of Cervical Cancer Prevention Week to launch its smear test awareness campaign #SmearForSmear.
Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35, yet among the 25-35 year old women questioned, almost two thirds were unaware of this, despite being in the most at risk age group. Worryingly high numbers do not understand the role of smear tests in preventing cervical cancer as 37% do not think you can reduce your risk of the disease and, despite low screening attendance among the age group, almost every woman (94%) said they would have a free test to prevent cancer if available.
Going back to the information my friend, Claire, presented with me (see above), this is now backed up with a new statistic that says among those who have delayed or not attended, a quarter (26%) find it too hard to make an appointment and over a third (35%) wouldn’t go if they had to take time off work. Also, 30% of those who have never attended a smear test are unsure where to go for a test
Robert Music, Chief Executive Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said: “Smear tests prevent 75% of cervical cancers so it is a big worry that so many young women, those who are most at risk of the disease, are unaware of the importance of attending. It is of further concern that body worries are contributing to non attendance. Please don’t let unhappiness or uncertainty about your body stop you from attending what could be a life-saving test. Nurses are professionals who carry out millions of tests every year, they play a big part in ensuring women are comfortable.”
To close, I'd like you to watch this video and maybe share your lipstick smeared selfie. It could be the reminder or the encouragement that someone else needs.