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Young women are embarrassed to attend smear tests because of their body shape (35%), the appearance of their vulva (34%) and concerns over smelling ‘normally’ (38%). In a new survey of 25-35 year old women, a third (31%) admitted they wouldn’t go if they hadn’t waxed or shaved their bikini area.

A third (36%) of the 2,017 women surveyed said embarrassment has caused them to delay attending, furthermore high numbers did not prioritise the potentially life-saving test as one in six (16%) would rather miss their smear test than a gym class and one in seven (14%) 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 (61%) 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 a third (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.

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 nonattendance. 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.”

Lindsay was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 29, she said:

“I had my first ever smear at 29 because I had ignored all my previous invitations. I was too busy with a baby and a small child, working and I didn’t like the thought of having to get naked in front of anyone I didn’t know. I don’t want other women to have to go through what I experienced, diagnosis and treatment was awful. I needed a radical hysterectomy and still struggle with some side effects of treatment today. Please don’t put off your smear test, the alternative is so much worse.”

Further findings include:

  • 20% of women have delayed a smear test because they would prefer not to know if something was wrong
  • Over one in six (17%) think smear tests are important but are unsure why, rising to a third (35%) in those who have never attended
  • Among women 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
  • 30% of women who have never attended a smear test are unsure where to go for a test
  • Among women who have delayed or not attended, half (50%) are embarrassed to attend because of weight or body shape (35% across the full sample), over half (54%) about having a ‘normal’ smell (38% across the full sample) and half (48%) because they don’t like how their vulva looks (34% across the full sample) or don’t think it looks ‘normal’ (39% compared to 28% across the full sample).

Jilly Goodfellow, Senior Sister and Nurse Practitioner for colposcopy and gynaecology, Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said:

“Nurses who take smears see hundreds of women but should never forget that the procedure may be embarrassing for some women. We know that if a woman does not have an acceptable experience this may put her off having smears in the future and the biggest risk of developing cervical cancer is not having a smear. The nurse’s focus is to make women feel welcome, comfortable and ensuring their dignity is maintained, while obtaining a good sample. We do this by talking to the woman while she is fully dressed so she is aware of what is going to happen, reasons for the smear, when she will receive the result and what it will mean. A chaperone is always offered and if they would like a friend or partner with them this is fine too. The majority of sample takers are female nurses who fully understand what it is like to expose the most intimate part of their body to a complete stranger.”

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