In 2018 more than 3,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and yet we’re at a 20 year low for cervical screening tests, a test that is free on the NHS to women aged 25+ that actually prevents 75% of cancer cases; it is one of only a few cancer prevention tests that are readily available without any presentable symptoms. It’s a no-brainer that we should be attending our screenings but 1 in 4 women simply aren’t. There are several factors causing many women to turn down their screening opportunity with body shame being highlighted as one of the detrimental reasons, but there are others. As part of Cervical Screening Awareness Week, we aim to tackle the main concerns in the hope we can at least encourage one more woman to attend this valuable screening.
Fear is a generalised term when it comes to cervical screenings- it means different things to different people.
Fear of results
For 20% of people surveyed earlier this year, they would rather not know if there was something wrong.
The objective of the test is to look for any abnormal cells- the cells collected have three categorisations of rating; normal, abnormal- borderline or low-grade or abnormal- moderate or severe. If the results come back normal, no further action or treatment is required, and you’ll be invited to attend again in 3-5 years (depending on your age and personal history); if the results come back abnormal, depending on the classification, depends on the next steps.
Borderline/low-grade usually means it’s very close to normal and may even disappear on its own, you’ll be tested for HPV (the main cause of cervical cancer) and you may be re-examined or invited back in 3-5 years depending on your risk. Even if you have abnormal- moderate or severe results, this doesn’t mean that you have cancer, it means they need to do further tests to determine the changes in your cells.
Importantly here is that what they’re looking for is abnormal cells and to determine your risk of developing cancer. If you routinely go for your examination from the age of 25, your chance of developing cancer will reduce significantly and there simply won’t be anything to report, no further treatment to be had and if there are abnormal cells found, these can be stomped out before they develop into something more sinister.
Fear of examination
If you’ve not been for a cervical screening before, it’s only natural to be apprehensive. Jo’s Trust website has lots of information to help you better understand the examination and what you can expect (the points to remember before screening is VERY helpful). However, know from my experience that it is not painful, though you may feel a slight discomfort, it is quick, and the practitioner will be supportive. If it makes you feel more comfortable you can request a female practitioner and you can take someone in with you. Once you’ve done it once, you’ll not think twice about going again.
As highlighted this concern was a surprising reason holding many women back from attending their examination. Some of the concerns raised were over body shape, appearance and perception of what’s normal.
You can always raise any concerns in advance of the appointment by speaking with a nurse or doctor at your local GP clinic (where the test will also be conducted) and if it would make you feel more comfortable you can request a gender specific practitioner if you have a preference.
For this test you’ll generally only undress from the waist down and even then, you can simply remove your underwear if you wear a skirt to your examination; the nurse or doctor will also cover you with paper towels to help you feel more comfortable. It should also be of comfort if you do meet with a female practitioner that they must go through this examination as well and they will undoubtably have the same concerns as you; as such, they always try and make you feel as comfortable as possible and will help answer any questions you may have about the examination or your concerns of what is normal.
Don’t have the time
Timing was also a crucial reason holding many back from attending their screening. Sadly, employers aren’t legally obliged to give you the time off to have your screening, however, it doesn’t mean they won’t. As it is a test that may only be required every 3-5 years they may be lenient. As a first port of call, it is worth talking to your line manager to check their position on it, if it isn’t stipulated in your contract. Hopefully they’ll acknowledge its importance (especially if they’re a woman- if they are and still don’t, show them this article!) and you can arrange the appointment at a convenient time for you both- perhaps first thing in the morning, during your lunch or nearer the end of the day.
Generally the test will be conducted at your registered GP surgery, and generally they run surgeries for such appointments, allowing you to book in advance to hopefully allow you to pick a day and time suitable. If you do have some problems attending your screening, be it location or timing or request to see a specific gender or practitioner, see if it may be possible to arrange to have the screening performed at a more convenient location- we’re speculating on this point but lots of surgeries now operate shared practice that may allow you to visit other GP surgeries that may offer more convenient times and locations for you.
Don’t think it applies
This test is important for all women aged 25+ (though arguably we say younger too!), whether sexually active or not, whether you have children or not, whether symptoms are prevalent or not. It is simply a test that is checking for abnormal cells and your risk of cervical cancer. HPV (a skin to skin contact virus) is said to cause 99.7% of cervical cancer cases though this isn’t an exclusive group. It is one of the very few tests that is available freely to help prevent and stop cancer. So it is something we should all most certainly take advantage of.